"The title song, 'If I Could Only Fly,' has been around for some time," he continues. "Willie Nelson and I recorded that in 1987 on a duet album ("Seashores Of Old Mexico"). It was one of those albums that they didn't push, but the song stuck around. People kept wanting to hear it. They kept calling me wanting me to sing it at funerals, they wanted me to sing it at weddings, and I had to sing it at Tammy Wynette's passing."
"It's an uplifter, and we just rerecorded it and got a good record. It's just one of those songs that's just been laying under the surface for many years, and it might just go through the roof," Haggard laughs.
When it comes to the songs he's written himself "If I Could Only Fly" and "Honky Tonky Mama" are the only two on the album he didn't have a hand in writing Haggard continues to reflect his own life circumstances, much as he has throughout his career.
Family looms large here, reflecting his recent marriage to Theresa Lane Haggard and the consequent presence of children in his life once again.
In "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," he laments that "the kids don't want my cigarettes around, while the moving "I'm Still Your Daddy" strikes close to home as the singer directly addresses his children, Ben and Jenessa, who, together with Theresa, appear on the cut singing harmony. "I knew some day you'd find out about San Quentin," it begins, an allusion to Haggard's young and troubled days before he began his musical career.
"Thanks To Uncle John" picks up that thread, recalling the man who taught him his first guitar chord and weaving a slow and tender quotation from "Rubber Dolly," the fiddle tune he learned back then, into the accompaniment.
"Proud To Be Your Old Man" finds the singer in a lighter mood, as he celebrates his new marriage: "I might be over the hill, but you make growing old quite a thrill," he sings to a durable country melody.
Still, Haggard finds inspiration for songs in a variety of sources. Asked about "Crazy Moon," a gentle tune with a hint of Latin sway written with Max Barnes, he chuckles.
"Well, you know, one day I was fishing, and someone said it's not good to fish when the sun and the moon are both in the sky at the same time. I thought, well, what a title, 'Crazy Moon.' Crazy is a great word for songs, and moon is a great word, and I thought, you know, it really is crazy that the moon's in the sky and the light can't even be seen unless you look up and accidentally notice it it's sort of crazy."
Throughout the album, Haggard's band, The Strangers, provide sympathetic backing. Though the band has sometimes numbered close to a dozen over the years, most of the new disc features small ensembles, occasionally augmented by guests like pianist Floyd Domino.
"Norman Hamlett's on the steel guitar and has been for too many years to mention," Haggard notes. "Don Markham's on saxophone, and he's also an old-timer. The rest of them are fairly new, I would imagine, in the last year or two. We have Redd Volkaert on lead guitar. He's the closest to (former Strangers guitarist) Roy Nichols with his tone and his touch and his innovation of anybody I've ever had with me."
Surprisingly, though he's the ultimate decision maker, Haggard leaves much of the responsibility for lining up new members to the band itself.
"I usually let the band hire them," the singer says. "For example, we had Joe Manuel on guitar, and Joe got a better offer to go with Lee Ann Womack. So, I just turned to the boys and said, 'where are we going to find a guitar player?' and they all said 'Redd Volkaert' at the same time. About four of them said the same guy."
"I said well, we'd better check out old Redd Volkaert," he laughs.
Though "If I Could Only Fly" is getting the lion's share of critical attention driven in part by the unusual combination of singer and label it's not the only new Haggard album on the market.
Two other releases, both on his own Hag Records label, show a less familiar side of the singer's work: gospel music.
"We have those at Wal-Mart," he says, "and they'll be there exclusively until the first of the year. There's 'Cabin In The Hills,' which is a gospel album that I did about a year ago, and there's 'Two Old Friends.' That one's by Al Brumley and myself."
Brumley, the son of famed gospel songwriter Albert E. Brumley, is, Haggard says, a genuine old friend.
"We've really been friends for close to 40 years. My mother first told me about him. When I was in San Quentin, doing time, she came to see me, and she said 'there's a boy on television that I'm really anxious for you to hear. He's Albert E. Jr., and he's really great.' I went on to agree with her, and when I came home and straightened my life up, I got to know Al, and for years we both lived in Bakersfield, and we both tried contracts with Capitol. He didn't do as well as I did at first. And then somehow or another we decided to I'm not sure how we decided to do this album, it was just 'why don't we do one together.' I love his singing, I'm just truthfully a fan of Al Brumley, and we really are friends. Some people just say that for the albums, but we're buddies. It's a great album."