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Merle Haggard shows his roots

By Jon Johnson, December 2001

The past year has easily been one of the most prolific of Merle Haggard's long career. The release of last year's critically acclaimed "If I Could Only Fly" on the L.A.-based Anti/Epitaph label was accompanied by a number of self-released projects, including "Cabin In the Hills" (a gospel album), "Two Old Friends" (an album of duets with Albert Brumley Jr., son of the famous gospel composer) and "California Blend," a more recent collaboration with old friend Chester Smith.

Add to this list a slew of recent reissues from his old label Capitol, including his 1969 live album, "Okie From Muskogee," two late '60's studio albums, and a thematic series of four titles reminiscent of Johnny Cash's "God"/"Love"/"Murder" project a couple of years back.

Today, though, Haggard is onto his latest release, "Roots, Volume 1," released in November (Anti), featuring covers of songs made famous by Lefty Frizzell and Hanks Williams and Thompson plus three new Haggard originals that somehow manage to slip in seamlessly between the older numbers.

Prominently featured on the new album is the distinctive lead guitar work of Norman Stephens, who also played lead guitar on two of Lefty Frizzell's first recording sessions. In fact, "Roots, Volume 1" marks Stephen's first appearance on record in five decades.

"It was an effort to try to recapture some of that great music that was made by Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson and people like that; the kind of music that (transitioned) from the big bands into Elvis," says Haggard from his home in Redding, Cal. "Norm Stephens had all the necessary electronic information (and) knowledge. He was there when it happened. He was such a valuable find. Not only to me, but to the public."

Dispensing with modern multitracking techniques, Haggard decided to record the band live in the studio; straight to tape without any effects or overdubs added later.

"That was part of the emulation of that period of time," says Haggard. "We hadn't come so far that we lost everything in reverb. I think that kind of started with rockabilly and Elvis. Prior to that, music was done pretty much straight into the microphone. We didn't do any overdubs or anything. There's some bass mistakes in there and a couple of bad notes on my part, and me and (bassist) Eddie (Curtis) will just have to live with those. But we did pretty good for trying to capture that old sound."

Stephens says, "(Merle) wanted to try and make it sound as original as possible. Of course, Jim Beck's studio was pretty popular back in those days when Lefty was recording. Merle decided to quit using the gadgetry that they have nowadays and just record it as naturally as we could. So, he set up a little room in his own house and set up a sound engineer there with a little machine that he had and everybody just played live. So, it was kind of like we did in the old days."

Stephens' discography might not be extensive - eight songs recorded with Frizzell in 1950 and 1951 (a mid-'50's stint with Hank Thompson went unrecorded) - but considering that four of those songs went to the top of the charts, he was heard by millions nonetheless, influencing thousands of future country guitarists - including Merle Haggard - with his fluid style.

Ironically, Haggard and Stephens had practically lived within a stone's throw of one another for years. Though Stephens had long known that Haggard lived nearby, he never attempted to contact him.

"I didn't want to bother him because he's always getting someone coming up saying, 'I knew your grandmother,' or some such thing as that," says Stephens, 70.

For his part, Haggard had no idea that Stephens was even still alive, much less living nearby. Stephens is mentioned only twice in Daniel Cooper's 1995 biography of Frizzell. Since Stephens' recording career had ended so early, little was known about him. And though friends with Frizzell in his later years, Haggard never got around to asking the late singer about Stephens' whereabouts.

Oddly enough, Haggard now recalls a fiddle player who worked with him about 10 years ago asking about a Norm Stephens who lived nearby, but at the time Haggard didn't make the connection in his own mind.

"I just ran into him by accident," says Haggard, 64. "He lives about 12 miles from me, and I didn't know it. Over the years, he's been one of the people I've admired the most on guitar. My piano player (Doug Colosio) asked me if I'd ever heard of a guitar player named Norman Stephens, and I said, 'Yeah, he was on Lefty Frizzell's first records.' He said, 'Well, he's got an ad in the paper.' So, he called him, and I asked him, 'Are you the guy that played on 'If You've Got the Money I've Got the Time?'' And he said 'Yeah.' So, I said, 'Why don't we get together?' So, within 48 hours, we were making this album."

"When I retired, my wife asked me why I didn't get back into playing a little bit," continues Stephens. "So, I started calling a few people around town and asked them if they wanted to do charity work because I didn't think we'd be able to book a band of any size. It turns out that a couple of these folks that I called knew Merle's piano player. Somehow my name got mentioned, (and) that got to Merle."

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