In April 2010, Merle Haggard’s latest album, I Am What I Am hit stores and radio stations around the nation. Amid the smooth, polished, heavily produced (some would say overly-produced) opus of much of the modern Nashville sound, I Am What I Am was like a revelation — a voice and sound that seemed to spring straight from an AM country station in the early 1980s.
The sound of I Am What I Am clearly struck a chord with contemporary audiences. Even cutting against the grain of so much of contemporary country music, it hit #18 on Billboard’s country charts. More surprisingly, it hit #11 on Billboard’s independent album charts — suggesting that, beyond a core demographic of grizzled Golden Age country fans, “The Hag” was fast finding favor with today’s young alt-country set.
Haggard feels like I Am What I Am is his most successful release in more than two decades, “The entire album is getting lots of attention,” he explains, “‘Oil Tanker Train,’ ‘Down at the End of the Road,’ and ‘Live and Love Always,’ which I did with [wife] Theresa, seem to be especially popular. But the whole album is going great.”
HE IS WHAT HE IS
Haggard believes the key to the album’s success was going back to the basics, not only musically but also in its lyrics. “In my mind, I went back to the basics, to do the same things I was doing in the beginning. I wrote about myself, my love, my successes — writing about the things I knew rather than just criticizing politicians.”
Of the album’s twelve tracks, “Oil Tanker Train” is probably Haggard’s favorite. It is a largely autobiographical piece, written about his childhood growing up next to a railyard in California during the tail-end of the Great Depression. “Everyone’s childhood is usually the sweetest time in their life,” he says, “and that’s why this song is probably my favorite one on the album.”
The song creating the most discussion, however, is probably the title track, “I Am What I Am.” In this long, somber acoustic number, the septuagenarian Haggard does more than just take us on a long journey of self-reflection, he sets forth a declaration of principles and beliefs by which he has tried to live. The song has garnered frequent comparisons with Haggard’s 1969 classic, “Okie from Muskogee,” which some people also interpret as self-exposition on the part of a much younger Haggard. From Haggard’s perspective, however, the current song doesn’t require much analysis or discussion.
“I am what I am. I do what do. I admit that I believe in Christ. I’m no longer a fugitive or outlaw. The main issues of one’s personality are there. It’s just a song about me,” he reflects. “People that love me will love me for it. And people that hate me will hate me for it.”
Haggard does say that “I Am What I Am” was one of the easiest songs to write of his career. The idea for the piece came to him very early one morning and he scribbled it down in virtually its final form. Once had it on paper, Haggard immediate went to the studio. Finding an engineer already there, they recorded the song with only Haggard’s vocals and guitar, sans any other accompaniment. That early morning solo take is the same one included on the album.
The success and distinct sound of “I Am What Am” has further established Haggard’s credentials as one of the leading performers, defenders, and advocates of a decidedly old school, traditional brand of country music. And it is a brand that he explicitly sees standing in opposition to much of the current country music scene.
LAST FAIR DEAL GONE DOWN
On many occasions, Haggard, whose own musical career stretches back to the 1950s, has criticized the modern country music establishment. Asked if he still feels that way, Haggard clarifies his terms a little bit, “I don’t mean to be critical about it, maybe I just don’t get it. I’m not able to appreciate the substance of it.” One point on which he is especially emphatic is that, for the most part, he feels that it is not the caliber of country musicians themselves that has changed. He believes that young country stars are generally as talented as ever.
But when prodded a little deeper, Haggard expresses grave misgivings about two elements of the modern country music industry. The first are changes in the recording process itself. He feels that digital recording and editing technology has allowed artists with lesser talent to become recording stars, sometimes ahead of their more talented counterparts. On a personal level, his solution to this is simple, “I like to see someone perform in person before I decide if I’m really a fan.” On a broader level, however, he believes it is problem that plagues the industry. “Lefty Frizzell once said, ‘You can’t even copyright your own voice.'” Haggard recalls, “Now, not only can someone copy your voice, they can use a machine to make it sound perfect.”
However, the bigger problem, Haggard feels, is the advent of radio programing on a national level that has supplanted locally driven demand and sounds. “The greatest thing that’s wrong with country music is that it’s decided from a national level,” he laments. “We no longer have radio stations that decide what to play based by requests from the local fans. You now have a situation where some office in Phoenix can decide programming for 90% of the U.S.”
Haggard does not mince words on the subject, “It’s unfair. It’s un-American. For people in Nebraska to depend on Phoenix for their country music is ludicrous. The music that kids are making these days is as good as ever — but which ones we hear aren’t chosen by us.”
INTERNET KILLED THE (CORPORATE) RADIO STAR
Asking a 73 year-old musician with a reputation for sticking to tradition what’s going to save country music, the answer might surprise you. Haggard has two words for those who want to see the glory days of country music rise again: “The Internet.”
If anything is going to save country music, he says, it will be the internet. Haggard believes that the online world allows music fans and musicians themselves to escape the confines of mass market radio. With social media sites like FaceBook and MySpace allowing even small, local bands to connect with listeners anywhere in the world, Haggard hopes country fans will no longer be beholden to what radio corporations have programmed for them and that fans will be able to go online and find the bands and sounds that speak to them. “Now that the internet it here, people can go find what they want to listen to,” he says.
The internet isn’t just a boon for young, emerging artists. Haggard says that many older artists are having new careers or revivals because younger listeners are learning about them and seeking out their music online. “With the internet,” he explains, “someone can go check out Hank Williams before listening to some modern guy who is just copying Hank Williams.”
Nor is Haggard just speaking in generalities; he attributes a lot of his own recent renaissance to the digital world. “A lot of guys and gals are finding me on the internet, and that makes me very proud,” he says.
Relating to his complaints with the modern country music scene, Haggard has advice for young artists. “I’m the last guy who that will criticize them, they’re drawing bigger crowds than ever, so God bless them,” he says, “but turn the radio off and make music yourself and don’t let other people’s writing methods and styles influence your music.”
STILL DEVOTED TO THE CLASSICS
In spite of his high hopes for the internet and today’s young country musicians, Haggard’s own musical tastes remain firmly grounded in tradition — though tradition might be a little broader than some would expect. Haggard expresses great admiration for artist ranging from Bob Wills, to The Beatles, to Bob Dylan. They are, “the people who influenced all music” in Haggard’s words.
“I’m listening to the same people I always did. I don’t find anything in the new music,” he says as his traditional sentiments resurface. “We have no Elvis Presley, but we’ve got 5,000 imitations. We haven’t had a new Johnny Cash … and we won’t. But I’d love to see one step out of the woodwork and make me shout.”
Mentioning Johnny Cash, the conversation turns the now legendary “almost meeting” between Haggard and Cash during the latter’s performances at California’s infamous San Quentin penitentiary, with Cash up on stage … and Haggard in the audience, where he was serving time for the attempted robbery of a Bakersfield, CA bar (one of several incarcerations in the young Haggard’s life). Cash’s performance would prove to a fateful moment in the history of American music.
“The first time I saw him,” Haggard remembers, “he had completely lost his voice. He was having to compete with strippers and comedians and other folks they brought out to entertain the convicts. This was back in the day when most people didn’t like country music. But Johnny Cash walks out in front of 5,000 convicts, with no voice, and completely put them in the palm of his hand — just through the strength of his personality.”
Haggard has a vivid memory of one moment from the show, “There was this guard at the show, and he was just standing in the corner and chewing gum. Johnny noticed this and did an impression of the guard on stage. He got a standing ovation from 5,000 convicts.”
For Haggard, Cash was an epiphany. “I saw what a man could do if he had the ammunition. And Johnny Cash had a full load. I decided I wanted to take it to the next level.” Although Cash was not Haggard’s only influence in deciding to reform and walk the straight and narrow path, he was an important part. He was also an inspiration to Haggard, who had already dabbled as a performer, to start taking his own musical gifts seriously.
Not surprisingly, given Haggard’s history, issues of freedom, confinement, and identity are a common theme running through many of his songs. I asked him, “If you had to make a choice between giving up your music or going back to prison but still making music, which would you choose?”
There is a moment’s pause, “I’d go back to the joint in a heartbeat,” he replies with complete confidence.
ENJOYING TODAY, LOOKING FORWARD TO TOMORROW
Haggard says that the acclaim given to I Am What I Am and the other recognition he has received in recent years has his career flying higher than it has for 25 years. But Haggard was never one to stand in one place, resting on his laurels. In August, he will be opening up for Brooks and Dunn’s farewell shows, the famous country duo are going to be hanging up their respective hats after two decades of music together. “I’m going to be involved with the closing of a great career, and that’s a great honor,” says Haggard.
Haggard is also in the process of turning his life’s story into a film. This is Haggard’s second brush with celluloid immortality. In spite of persistent denials by all those involved, stories continue to circulate that the 1983 classic, and Academy Award Winner, Tender Mercies was largely based on Haggard’s life. Haggard, again, refutes the notion, “They came out and spent some time with me, and Waylon, and Willie. They used our moves, they used our walks. Robert Duval and I became friends. But that film wasn’t about me.” After a quarter century of the Tender Mercies story, Haggard is looking forward to having a film that is actually based on his life.
While keeping his eyes on the future and wishing today’s young country musicians well, Haggard is clearly devoted to his own brand of classic old-school country. And if charts, a full calendar, and a new film are anything to go by — The Hag is doing more than keeping it alive, he’s making fresh converts.