e's one of the all-time greatest country music performers and songwriters, but Merle Haggard has kept a pretty low profile the past few years. That's all changed in recent months.
The release of "For The Record," a double CD featuring new recordings of 43 of his biggest hits, called attention to itself by including duets with hot acts like Jewel and Alabama. A pay-per-view special from Las Vegas garnered more attention. And Hag's second autobiography is being released.
"It was all planned at a meeting in January to stimulate the buying base of Merle Haggard," says the Hag. "It's the cross-grid marketing of today."
HE's also been heard from via a live album and reissue of 1981's "Big City."
There's been a lot of money made off Haggard's music over the years, but a lot of it wasn't made by him, and much of what he did make he had trouble hanging on to.
While Buck Owens, his contemporary and longtime Capitol labelmate, owns his own classic recordings, Haggard does not. "Buck was doing a lot of things I didn't do. Some things I didn't do on purpose. He was always smart. I was always stupid. He was a businessman, he came in that way. I've finally become a businessman."
Most people know Haggard's story. Born in Bakersfield, he served three years in San Quentin in his early 20's, then went on to become one of country's biggest stars. He had 71 Top Ten hits, (38 reaching number 1, second all-time to Conway Twitty) most of them self-written.
The album and pay-per-view were done in tandem with TBA productions. "I assumed there was a market for the rerecordings. Capitol wasn't doing anything with the ones they had. "
The same could also be said for MCA and Epic, who own Hag's later hits. And of his more recent unsuccessful stint with Curb, Haggard says "That was an accident, a train wreck." In tribute to the pale graphics of his last two albums, "!994" and "1996," he adds, "They didn't even give me an album cover."
For "For The Record," Haggard says, "I recorded 65 songs, and they picked 43 for the album, "I just recorded the things I wanted to do again. I didn't do (1977 hit) 'If We're Not Back In Love by Monday' because I was sorry I did it the first time."
Talking about the album's duets, he says, "It's not as much fun as it looks like. You're in different studios, different places. You may not ever see them. A lot of people wanted to be involved with this project. Someone at TBA said 'Jewel's a big Haggard fan,' I said, 'I'm a fan of Jewel's, let's get her.'"
But although they recorded two duets for the album, Haggard and Jewel had never met before they performed together at the recent CMA awards.
Haggard feels that one of the duets with Jewel came out particularly well. "'Silver Wings' was a lot better (than the original). I think that song was overlooked. It was just a B-side, but over the years it became one of my most requested songs."
"In those days, you didn't know what was going to be the B-side or the A-side. You took in your best songs and had three hours. It was altogether different than it is now. We had a lot of good material, and you could only put one on the A-side. We did have a couple of double number ones."
"That's The Way Love Goes" appears on both "For The Record" and on the "Live At Billy Bob's" album that also came out this year. Haggard didn't write it, but it's become identified with him. "I sure do wish I had written it. That was Lefty Frizzell and Whitey Shafer, two great writers I've admired for many years."
Ten years before, Hag hit with his first recording of the song. Johnny Rodriguez also took it to the top.
Asked about other writers, Haggard says, "I'm a fan of Kris Kristofferson. His songs knock me out. Tom T. Hall is a great writer. I'm really not aware of who's writing great things today. I can't get into the perfection of it all. I just want to see someone perform to see if they can really do it."
As for the biggest change in country music in the last 30 years. Haggard says, "Country music's gone to New York City. It's been refined and made to fit the mold. It doesn't have a lot of room for a Hank Williams. I don't think they have a chance today if they're singing about life. It seems like the subject matter has narrowed. There's some awfully clever things out there, but by the time they get through being clever I've lost the meaning of the song."
"It's all been made perfect so it can fit some perfect young person. They're grooming people. This is the thing I don't understand. (In golf) Tiger Woods had to come up through the ranks. (In country) there's no ranks to come up through anymore. It's all done backwards to me. Are we trying to come up with another Merle or Hank? Don't we need somebody to bring us into the next millennium with some originality?"
"I don't mean to come down on these kids. There's good writers and singers. I just tell it like I see it."
As for the U.S.A. itself, "It's gone from a country with no information to a country with information that's not correct. You can't get the right news from New York to California. If something happens in Denver, they don't want you to know about it in California. If someone who buys (advertising) time at the station does something wrong, we're not going to hear about it. We're just short of a police state. People don't realize it until they go to the airport. The freedom is slipping away."