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Merle Haggard shows his roots

By Jon Johnson, December 2001

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Over the course of the interview, Haggard's thoughts turn to politics from time to time. And if Haggard's political beliefs are a little hard to pin down, that's probably fine with him. After all, Haggard's Nixon-era conservative anthems like "Okie From Muskogee," "Workin' Man Blues" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" have long peacefully co-existed with "Irma Jackson" and great dust bowl numbers like "Mama's Hungry Eyes" and "Tulare Dust" with a degree of ease that would be nearly unthinkable for most other songwriters of his generation.

From Haggard's viewpoint, if one good thing came out of Sept. 11, it's that he doesn't have to play his signature hit at every concert these days, with audiences apparently more eager to hear "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Silver Wings" for the time being.

"That song, prior to 9/11, was really important. Marijuana and who Bill Clinton was screwing were big issues. (But) I didn't do 'Okie From Muskogee' at the last couple of concerts, and there was nobody that wanted their money back. So, maybe we've finally moved beyond the absolute necessity of that being done every night. Now, when we get down around Oklahoma, or if it's overwhelmingly in demand we'll still do the song, but that's sort of walking on the silly side of Merle Haggard."

One of several patriotic songs that have been revived on dozens of country radio playlists since Sept. 11 has been Haggard's 1970 chart-topper "The Fightin' Side of Me." Though in its day it was regarded by many as a blue collar ode to the joys of beating up war protesters, the song is currently enjoying a second life as a call to arms against America's enemies.

Asked if there are any songs he particularly enjoys playing these days, Haggard responds, "Oh, I like to sing 'em all. We've been fortunate over the years. We can do 'Ramblin' Fever.' We can do 'The Bottle Let Me Down.' We can do 'Today I Started Loving You Again.' I don't take anything out on stage with me. I just take some musicians that are competent, able to understand and quick on their feet. We do an impromptu show, so we (try to) entertain ourselves as well as the people out in front."

Haggard's relationship with his current label, Anti Records (a subsidiary of west coast punk rock label Epitaph), continues to be good. It's a far cry from his years with his last label, Curb, who he tore apart in interviews on a regular basis even while still signed with the company; still a common practice with Curb artists such as Tim McGraw, Hank Williams III and LeAnn Rimes to this day.

"I'm doing everything I can, and (Anti is) doing all they can. They've kept their word, and they're setting new trends for record companies to live up to. I didn't desire being on any label, but they came up and listened to my music. They were thrilled with it and said they didn't want to change anything about me; didn't want me to go re-record with some young producer. So, I said, 'Yeah, I'll make a deal with you.' So, with that attitude they've really done well, and they came in knowing I probably wasn't going to get the proper airplay. But we're moving along pretty good. They've actually paid me."

Asked about the potential for airplay for his more recent recordings, particularly in the wake of the success of "O Brother Where Art Thou," Haggard is hopeful, though not under any illusions.

"I think that in order to get a Merle Haggard record played we're going to have to convince the people with an overwhelming demand. Not the consumer. I've got to convince the guy like Chester Smith. I've got to convince the guy that owns the Wall Street Journal, and the people who live in Manhattan - the people who run this world. And that's the only way that Merle Haggard's going to get back on the air. They're going to have to be convinced that I need to be there. And I think we've almost come to the point where that is the case."

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