The Hag flies high – October 2000
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The Hag flies high  Print

By Jon Weisberger, October 2000

"Leaving's getting harder all the time, staying home hangs heavy on my mind," Merle Haggard sings on his new album, "If I Could Only Fly" (Anti Records). Still, the song continues, "If I don't travel, I don't make a dime," and so the legendary singer and songwriter is aboard his bus once again, on his way to Nashville at the start of yet another two-week tour.

"I really have never quit," the 63-year-old Haggard notes. "I do about half the possible time on the road. We'll be out here about two weeks out of a month. Sometimes we'll take a month off, and sometimes we have to make up the time we took off. When you've got people who work for you, you've got to think about their checks. They want to get paid every week, and in order to keep good people, you've got to give them what they want."

That may sound like a mundane reason for touring, but it's one born of experience.

Though he's one of country music's brightest and most enduring stars - he first hit Billboard's Top 40 chart at the end of 1963, stands second on the list of most number one singles in the field and was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1994 - he's learned the hard way to keep a close rein on business matters.

"20 or 30 years ago, I didn't watch business very closely at all," he says regretfully. "I had people that were doing that, and some of them were honest, some of them weren't. Lately, I'm pretty much on my own. We're answering the phone, and we're actually signing our own checks - watching things pretty closely, because if you don't, you know the consequences."

Similarly, it was more business experience rather than any special compatibility in musical outlook that seems to have led Haggard's decision to release his latest album on a label spun off from a company - Epitaph Records - best known for its punk rock roster.

Anti Records, founded last year by Epitaph owner Brett Gurewitz, made its debut with the Grammy-winning "Mule Variations" by Tom Waits.

Gurewitz, who says that the label's mission "is to provide successful recording artists who are disillusioned with the corporate music establishment a new way of doing business that makes sense artistically and economically," calls it "a real privilege to provide (Haggard) with the type of working environment that he deserves."

"They didn't seem to want me any more in mainstream country," Haggard affirms. "And, you know, I played beer joint rock 'n' roll bands before I ever played country, so I thought well, here's this label that's all enthused about my music, and they're associated with young people, and I'd like to get my music to the young public as well as the older folks. They offered me a little more, and they actually have done more already than any record company I've ever been with. I can't say enough good things about them, and that's not usually the case," he laughs. "I've been with some real dandies."

Indeed, Haggard's one-record deal with Anti was premised on the label's interest in his new material and its willingness to take the album he delivered, rather than impose direction.

In that regard, it stands in marked contrast to two recent releases, 1999's "Live At Billy Bob's" (Smith Music Group) and "For The Record: 43 Legendary Hits" (BNA), both of which were recorded with essentially the same band.

Of the latter, Haggard says that "a couple of years ago, they came and asked me to duplicate some of the old hits so they'd have their own versions. You know, Capitol owns those ones from the beginning, and CBS had the desire for me to record the same songs so they'd own the masters. So, they paid us a lot of money to do that, and it was a chore, because when you get something as good as you can get it, then it's hard to match up. Some of them were better, and some of them weren't as good, and some of them were just different. But it was a job."

"If I Could Only Fly," on the other hand, seems to have been a labor of love. Though the songs and arrangements touch many of the bases The Hag has covered musically over the past 40 years, from classically simple country songs to western swing and blues, the overarching mood of the album is restrained and contemplative - though not without its startling moments.

"Watching while some old friends do a line, holding back the want to in my own addicted mind," the singer admits in the opening of the CD's very first song, "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," longing for "good times like the roaring '20's and the roaring '80's too."

Still, it's a quiet tone that predominates, and even the bluesy "Honky Tonky Mama" foregoes the rowdiness with which he once might have invested it.

"I'll tell you where that song came from," Haggard says. "Governor Jimmie Davis recorded that song somewhere around 1933. You know, he's 101 years old, and I just happen to be a big Jimmie Davis fan; over the last 3 or 4 years he and I have become pretty close. And I liked that old song of his, and Epitaph liked it. It's got that old gut-bucket saxophone on it, you know."

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