Published Feb 01, 2000It's always a tired cliche to say only the strong survive, but in the world of country music it's one of the few tenets that rings true. This is largely illustrated by the careers of Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard, all of whom are approaching the half-century mark of their individual careers, and who have each been rejuvenated in recent years by returning to their original simple methods of recording.
For Haggard, the change came only last year, when he accepted an offer from punk label Epitaph's subsidiary Anti- to release If I Could Only Fly, a collection of original songs he says he'd had stashed away for several years. "They wanted to work with Merle Haggard so they could become respectable," he laughs. "I was attracted to them because even though what they were doing might sound ugly to country fans, at least it was being done in the spirit of being different." Haggard adds surprisingly that he was unaware of his peers' comebacks. "I guess unbeknownst to the others, we were all thinking along the same lines. We were all irritated with how country records were being produced. Willie and I were just talking about it a month ago; if people can't hear our voices and our message, then he and I don't have a chance."
The album's overwhelming acceptance has now led to Roots, Volume One, a much more light-hearted stroll through Haggard's primary influences, mostly the songs of Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. He says the impetus came with his discovery this year that Frizzell's guitarist, Norm Stephens, lived only a short distance from Haggard's California home base. Upon meeting up, Haggard quickly drew up a list of songs to record with the intention of having Stephens augment Haggard's long-serving band, the Strangers, in the studio. The results once again show Haggard rising to occasion as he previously did on his landmark tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers in the 1970s. "[This album] was one of the things I hadn't done that I'd always wanted to do, and it forced me to get in shape to sound like I was 16 years old again," Haggard says. "These are the songs that inspired me to do what I've done my whole life. I feel it's my best work, and it was recorded in my front room, just like we used to make records anywhere we could."
Haggard's satisfaction with Roots could also stem from the fact that he is as happy in his personal life as he's ever been as well. "Around 1993 was about the lowest point I've been at. I was hit with bankruptcy papers the same day I had a son born. The music business was at its lowest ebb, and I was several million dollars in debt. A lot of people didn't think I'd survive that, but today I'm the complete opposite of where I was then." Unfortunately, that's something that cannot be said for Lefty and Hank, which is another reason why Haggard feels it is his duty to promote their music to a new generation. "They were different people, but I don't think they would have ever quit. They were lifers, just like I am."