Merle Haggard may have mellowed a bit, but continues to speak his mind

by Heather Svokos

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

28 April 2008


It’s no use trying to pigeonhole an outlaw. Not when he’s Merle Haggard.

Haggard is a rollickin’ renegade whose recent effort is a mellow bluegrass album; he’s a Ronald Reagan devotee who also recently wrote a campaign song for Hillary Clinton, and he’s a tough ol’ scrapper who isn’t above getting his feelings hurt when he feels disrespected.

But then, the 71-year-old country legend has never been about toeing the line.

Haggard’s 1969 anti-hippie anthem, “Okie From Muskogee,” slingshotted him into a pantheon of patriotic Nashville types; he followed it up in 1970 with “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” a song that further expressed frustration with Vietnam war protesters.

And he’s still getting amped up over politics, but these days, his tune might not be as familiar. Take the war in Iraq, for example.

“They just ignore the fact that every reason they gave us for going in there has been proven to be a farce,” Haggard says from his home in Redding, Calif. “There was no weapons of mass destruction, he (Saddam Hussein) was not linked to al-Qaida. What are we doing there?”

This is the man who once suggested that Ronald Reagan’s face be added to Mount Rushmore, but Haggard’s discontent over the war and the economy prompted him to swing toward supporting Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. Instead of trying to immortalize her in stone, he did what many a musician has done: He wrote her a song.

The song was called “Hillary” - later retitled “Let’s Put a Woman in Charge” - and he hoped she would use it as a campaign song. The lyrics, in part, read: “If we don’t elect Hillary, then we’ll never know/She is the right lady, and her husband’s a pro ... This country needs to be honest, changes need to be large/Something like a big switch of gender/Let’s put a woman in charge.”

But now he has misgivings about the song.

“It was kind of weird,” Haggard says. “I wish I hadn’t done it.”

He says he was disappointed with how the Clinton campaign responded to the song. “I wrote her a song,” Haggard says, “and I gave it to her, and she liked it. And she played it at her campaign, and they liked it. But then somebody thought they’d best the deal, so they went down to Nashville and asked a bunch of songwriters to write another song called `Hillary,’ and see how many of them could come up with a better song. And it hurt my feelings. ... I thought they might use it, or respect it, but they didn’t do either.” The Clinton campaign did not return a request for comment.

Haggard says he hasn’t given up on Clinton completely, but he’s stopping short of endorsing anybody just yet.

You can hear the song on YouTube, but he isn’t making it available for purchase. “I’m done with it,” he says.

Thankfully, Haggard is far from done with musical experimentation. His latest album, “The Bluegrass Sessions,” melds some new and old bluegrass tunes with bluegrassy spins on some of his own classics, such as “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” on which he duets with Allison Krauss.

So why the jump into bluegrass?

“It was just something that I hadn’t done before,” Haggard says. “I had some friends - Ronnie Reno and Marty Stuart - that had expressed an interest that they thought there was a market for it. So we went down and tried it. The album debuted at No. 1 on the bluegrass charts, so we’re proud of that.” (The album was released in October 2007.)

Haggard says recording the album was a strange and interesting experience. “Singing without a drummer, for one, is great,” he said with a laugh. “It was great to not have to fight that drummer.”

“The Bluegrass Sessions’” musical style isn’t the high-lonesome variety popularized by Bill Monroe. “There’s not really any real fast songs,” Haggard says. “We’re not doing that style of bluegrass. This is more just the mellow attempt of an old guy.”

So what does the old guy think of the new guys and gals of country, such as Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift, and “American Idol’s” Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler?

He admits he doesn’t much track of a lot of the new stuff. “I probably should, but I haven’t heard anything that really knocked me down. They’re pretty, of course, and they’re young.”

Haggard says that libido - not melody - rules a lot of the newer music. “Sometimes I think it’s more about belly buttons than it is guitars,” he says. “Which is fine. Everybody goes through that. It’s part of growin’ up.”

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