Merle Haggard: Haggard Like Never Before

Will Stenberg

Merle Haggard

Haggard Like Never Before

Label: Hag
US Release Date: 2003-09-30

Merle Haggard has worn a lot of different hats: flag-waving reactionary and thoughtful social critic, sensitive balladeer and jazzy western swinger, hardened convict and family man. Giving all these guises unity has been his intense commitment to his art, which has rarely wavered. As impressive as his track record is -- 39 #1 country hits is the most oft-cited statistic -- his body of work manages to actually transcend the praise it's received, however extravagant. At his best, Merle is a songwriter whose spare, vivid tales of the triumphs and terrors of ordinary working life recall the short stories of Raymond Carver. Listen to "If We Make It through December" or the chilling "Someday When Things Are Good" to hear what I mean, to hear how, like Carver, Merle can take everyday struggles, and supposedly ordinary people, and find the deep pathos buried there.

What's amazing is that, after all these years, the guy is still at it. The '90s were a tough time for the Hag, but recent years have found him in a better place, thanks in part to a boost from Anti, a branch of punk label Epitaph that has put out records by Tom Waits and soul legend Solomon Burke. While we can't expect all the old-timers in the country field to experience a Johnny Cash-like resurrection (and I, for one, don't need to hear Merle Haggard doing Will Oldham or Nick Cave covers), it's good to see one of country's brightest stars getting some respect, if not the money and airplay he equally deserves.

Perhaps the one good thing about the country world's utter disregard for its forbearers is that those of them still living are no longer under pressure to be anything. In Merle's case, this independence seems to have freed him up. With nothing more to live up to and his greatest fame behind him, he can finally be what, at bottom, he's always been: a great American musician, plying his trade. His new record, Haggard Like Never Before, is a fun and affecting romp through some of the various genres in which Merle has made his home, from the rowdy barroom honky-tonk of "Haggard (Like I've Never Been Before)" (did it really take him 40 years to pun on his name?) to the trashy blues swing of "Garbage Man" and the soulful, jazz-inflected ballad to his young wife, "Because of Your Eyes".

Actually, the whole album is jazz-inflected, which shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with his career: he remains the only country performer to have been featured on the cover of the jazz bible Downbeat, and even the staunchest country songs on here have a little jazziness to them. Take his duet with Willie Nelson on Woody Guthrie's great cowboy ballad "Reno Blues (Philadelphia Lawyer)" -- it's a traditional country waltz, no frills, but Merle's guitar solo at the end, just before Willie takes his turn, curls around the melody like a ribbon, with more jazz subtlety than vanilla country twang. That's one example, but they're everywhere -- little chords and riffs, not to mention horns, that place his undeniably country songs in the context of something larger.

His voice is in terrific shape, almost uncomfortably intimate and expressive, and he uses it in the service of new, mostly original songs that give fresh perspective on his old themes. The song that's gotten all the attention -- that's performed the amazing feat of actually getting Merle Haggard talked about again -- is "That's the News", which takes a sad, hard look at our media's coverage of the Iraq war, concluding that "politicians do all the talking, soldiers pay the dues". "Suddenly the war is over", he sings -- "that's the news". Meanwhile, of course, our young men and women are still dying, and Merle's loyalty remains, as always, with them. Although he's been a vocal critic of the Bush administration's policies, in "Yellow Ribbons", an old-fashioned flag-waver complete with a snare-drum marching beat, he expresses his undying support for the American soldier. Further proof that he can't be defined by simplistic political labels is the minor-key swing tune "Lonesome Day", which, while not naming names, seems to bemoan both the climate of fear in modern American society -- taking us to task for "giving up our liberties and buying what they sell" -- while it simultaneously laments the sanitization of the music world, with lines like:

When the big boys with microphones just up and step away
And they're afraid to say the things they know they ought to say...
It's gonna be a lonesome day.

I was shocked, at first, to read an interview in which Merle Haggard, one of just three or four contenders for the throne of Most Important Country Artist of All Time, admitted quite casually that he "{doesn't} like all of country music. In fact, I like very little of it." Upon reflection, though, it made perfect sense. Haggard has worked, proudly, in the country tradition, but his priority has always been his own vision, and he is one of the few country artists -- in the company of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash -- whose legacies transcend genre, whose songs have become part of our shared cultural heritage.

In the title song, Merle picks up on a theme he's been singing about a lot lately: being old, and tired, and wanting to be home with his family instead of singing in dirty honky-tonks and living on the road. The fact that, in today's country music climate, an artist of his stature still has to tour to make a decent living is a shame, no doubt about it, and Merle has a right to moan. But when all the Tim McGraws and Keith Urbans have been replaced by the next manufactured clone, Merle Haggard will remain where he belongs: in the American canon, with Hank and Cash, with Woody Guthrie and Louis Armstrong -- a pioneer and an American original.

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