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Photograph by Piper Ferguson

Outlaw Country

Merle Haggard's unbridled honesty

By Felix Thursday

ANTI-CORPORATE, anti-Nashville, anti-studio musician, and now on the Anti-Epitaph label (the same music stable housing Rancid, NoFX, Tom Waits, and Tricky), 60-something Merle Haggard is back with another batch of songs and a recent autobiography detailing his many detours along life's highway--from drugs to divorce to incarceration.

Haggard--who appears March 13 at the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa--has been just about as beat up as an old Farmall tractor from traveling to practically every two-bit truck stop and backwoods honky-tonk in America over the past three decades or so. Yet he still has enough shit-kicking spirit to shame any of today's so-called country music hat acts.

At the same time, however, he has mellowed and evolved from being merely a spokesperson for the high-crown hat and gun-rack contingent that embraced such Vietnam War-era my-country-right-or-wrong anthems as "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" into an emotive, innovative, and introspective singer/songwriter.

"Watching while some old friends do a line/ Holding back the want to in my own addicted mind/ Wishing it was still the thing even I could do . . . " he sings on "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," the opening track on his latest CD If I Could Only Fly. It's the best recent Hag composition since 1985's "Kern River."

"I knew someday you'd find out about San Quentin," he laments to his children later on the album on "I'm Still Your Daddy." ". . . But it's time you knew the truth about your papa/ I've not always been the man I am today."

It is the unbridled honesty and soul-searching of songs like "I'm Still Your Daddy" and "Wishing . . ." that have come to define Haggard's career in country and beyond, and that portray, on the new album, a man (now a senior citizen) still struggling to provide insight to himself through song.

If I Could Only Fly is not all mired in melancholy, though. Along with his pleas for forgiveness and efforts to make peace with his past, Haggard expresses some lighter more optimistic hues, like on the paean to the Texas Playboys, "Bareback," and the old Louisiana jazz styling of "Honky Tonky Mama," backed by his rugged band of improvisational virtuosos the Strangers. A man who in the past has admitted to being "The Rugged Kind" and claimed matter-of-factly that "my hat don't hang on the same nail too long" now concedes, on "Leavin's Getting Harder," that "old fishing pole looks better every day." And where he used to boast that "I don't let no woman tie me down," he now swears to his new wife, "If you need someone to turn to, turn to me."

On the new album, Haggard sounds happy for once and--like always--he sounds great.

HIS MEMOIR, My House of Memories (Cliff Street/Harper Collins; 1999)--with prominent Nashville journalist Tom Carter--exposes just how honest and autobiographical Haggard has been in the songs spanning his career, from his Okie roots to his troubled upbringing in Bakersfield battling the authorities and, later, his own inner struggles with money, monogamy, and addiction.

He candidly recalls his encounters with the IRS, LSD, and UFOs, his stint in San Quentin for attempting to burglarize a bustling restaurant (he thought was closed), interstate car chases, barroom brawls, and freight-train hopping (a feat he purports he still could pull off today). Haggard also explains the demise of four of his five marriages, recounts a near-death experience from a drug overdose, and exalts the love for his present wife and family.

With experiences like these, it's no wonder Hag has remained the most prolific songwriter in country music for more than 30 years.

As he sings on If I Could Only Fly's "Honky Tonky Mama": "I think I have paid my dues."


Merle Haggard performs Tuesday, March 13, at 8 p.m. at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $30, $35, and $40. 707/546-3600.

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From the March 8-14, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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