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Merle Haggard shows his roots

By Jon Johnson, December 2001

Page 2...

"I was kind of flattered that he wanted me to come out and do some work with him. I walked into his house, and he shook my hand and said, 'So, you're Norm Stephens?' He said he'd been an admirer of mine for most of his life, and I had no idea that that was the case. He said he's been listening to my guitar work on Lefty's records for a long time and tried to pattern some of his own stuff on what I'd done. That was kind of a surprise and a compliment to me, of course."

"It so happened that he had been thinking about doing a tribute to Lefty Frizzell. Since I was on Lefty's original records, he thought it'd be appropriate for me to be on the tribute."

Although Stephens hadn't played much over the past decade, he says that it didn't take him long to recover his technique.

"It's a lot like riding a bicycle. Your knowledge doesn't go away, but your coordination does, so it took a little while to get back into shape. But the musicians were very kind to give me time to get into some kind of playing shape."

Although it's sometimes forgotten nowadays, there was a time early in Frizzell's career when his star shone as brightly as that of Hank Williams Sr. The period from 1950 to 1952 was a great time for both artists, and Frizzell's recordings from this era were hugely influential on Haggard and other singers who grew up in the '50's, as well as artists of the following generation, including George Strait, Randy Travis and the late Keith Whitley.

Frizzell died of a stroke in 1975 at the age of 47. Ironically, his death came at a time when his career appeared to be on the upswing again, having recently released two satisfying albums for the now-defunct ABC label that had somewhat revived his fortunes, both on the charts and as an artist.

Although Haggard was close to Frizzell in his later years (and had, in fact, first met him in 1951), Stephens lost touch with the late singer by the mid-'50's.

"He came to where I lived not too long after I got (out of the military). I went over and visited, talked with him and did a few songs with him, but that was about the last contact I had with him. Of course, I didn't realize he would have a health problem. I was certainly saddened to hear when he died. That's always been kind of a sad note to my life, that I wasn't around to get him to go see a doctor."

Haggard envisions "Roots" as an ongoing series, with an emphasis on recording a wide range of songs that influenced Haggard as he was growing up.

"'Roots' is really a project that's meant for me to describe to my fans and the rest of the people that care what kind of music I did before I had music of my own. It takes in a wide variety of jazz, pop music, country music and the early days of rock 'n' roll. I'm a big rock 'n' roller. I love Elvis, and I love Chuck Berry. I loved Emmett Miller, I loved Nat King Cole, (and) I liked Louis Armstrong. Everything that has to do with what I was before I became who I am, I'm going to try to put it on tape if I live long enough."

"We did 23 sides (during the sessions for the latest album), and the reason for (the title) 'Volume 1' is because we have at least another volume two and volume three. We also have in our possession a recording that takes us back into the big band era. We're talking about between 1940 and 1950 - Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, "Stardust"...those kinds of things."

Another upcoming project close to Haggard's heart is a proposed weekly TV show that will combine elements of the talk show and variety show formats.

"We're going to be making a pilot in the first part of December. It will be a combination variety show (and) talk show, with the intention of doing a show where we can talk to people all over the world every Saturday night. And at the same time (I can) say, 'Boys, let's play a little song here.'"

Haggard has also recently released an album, "California Blend," with Chester Smith on Haggard's own Hag label. Although today best known as a California-based media baron, in the '50's Smith was a successful hillbilly/gospel singer who, like Stephens, had not recorded for the past several decades. Smith also appears on "Roots" as a rhythm guitarist and has also been performing as a member of the Strangers since the summer.

"Chester and I have known each other for many, many years (and) he wanted to get back into the entertainment side of the business. He had a big gospel record in 1952 called 'Wait a Little Longer Please Jesus' (also recorded by Haggard himself in 1965). He's a big broadcaster and has a bunch of stations here in California, but he wanted to get on the other side of the microphone, get his guitar out of the case and make an album. So I helped him do it. I'm proud of the record, and I hope everyone likes it."

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