Haggard looks back in song
by Jeff Ousborne
Unlike, say, volatile punks, volatile country legends have an obligation to age
gracefully. The possibility of a spindly Johnny Thunders at 55 was always
unlikely; the prospect of Johnny Rotten at 60 is silly. But Merle Haggard at 63
is a sublime ruin, an old rock formation -- crumbling, weathered, full of
grottos and ghosts.
Sure, the rest of craggy Mount Rushmore has its own evocative past. Johnny
Cash once smashed the stage lights at the Grand Ole Opry in a pill-induced
rage. As country's capital-"R" romantic, Willie Nelson's slept with more women
than Wilt Chamberlain. And George Jones, the honey-throated hillbilly Sinatra,
still gets lickered-up and wrecks the occasional SUV. But Haggard is an
American hardship myth come to life. The son of Okie parents who left dust-bowl
Oklahoma for Bakersfield, California. Born in a boxcar. Juvenile delinquency. A
botched burglary. Solitary at San Quentin. Musical redemption. Addiction. Gin
and misery. Divorces. A duet with Jewel. Oh, and there were those 40 or so #1
hits, too, starting in 1962. He's remained prolific ever since, even releasing
two best-of compilations of his '90s work.
Along the way, Haggard became the most supple, versatile of country
singer-songwriters, an artist who rarely if ever let his personality overshadow
the music. That's why his loving tribute albums, like 1970's prescient Bob
Wills homage The Best Damn Fiddler In the World, rank among his best
work. He disappears into an entire tradition at will. Yet Haggard's admirable
self-abnegation and classicism make him a harder sell to alterna-rock hipsters
than Nelson, who recently hooked up with edgy producer Daniel Lanois, or Cash,
who appears as comfortable on stage at the Viper Room as he is at a honky-tonk.
Haggard, however, is perfectly suited to his new record company. LA's
Anti-records, an imprint of the punk label Epitaph, is distinguishing itself as
a left-of-the-dial boarding house for outlaws and expatriates (Tom Waits, Joe
Strummer). The alliance also puts a poignant reverse spin on the trajectory of
alterna-country. Over the last decade and half, ex-post-punks like Uncle Tupelo
and Ryan Adams have abandoned the empty husk of alternative rock for country's
bracing honesty and populism. That a West Coast indie label is now embracing
Haggard -- a wandering apostle of West Coast country -- embodies a kind of
circle-completing poetic justice.
Of course, Haggard wasn't around for the DIY rock epiphanies of the '70s and
'80s. (Then again, neither was Adams, whose band Whiskeytown recorded a stellar
version of Haggard's "Silver Wings" last year for a tribute to country-punk
prophets the Knitters.) But the screw-it-all reactionary æsthetic of punk
was always akin to the bottle-smashing, equally reactionary impulses of
country. Both offer the promise of something dirty, unmediated, honest, a
little scary. Besides, Haggard can hippie-bash with the best of them, as his
ironic 1969 hit "Okie from Muskogee" proved. Reactionary populism has its
perils: musical mediocrities getting by on "authenticity," pointless obsessions
with purity, and Haggard's own slightly paranoid right-wing politics. So what?
Indeed, the unassuming If I Could Only Fly easily earns a place on that
small shelf of great albums about being a tired old man. Recorded with
Haggard's trusty backing band, the Strangers, it shows little in the way of
glitz, just a palette of earth tones and lyrics as direct as a death sentence.
On '60s hits like "Swinging Doors" and "The Bottle Let Me Down, " Haggard's
voice was always an astringent pleasure, not a sweet one. But his mouth's more
puckery than ever before -- a dry quality his own simple production and
acoustic arrangements accentuate.
Country and personal reference points abound. Disguised as a nostalgia piece,
"Wishing All the Old Things Were New," which has the elegantly carpentered
perfection of a Guy Clark song, begins: "Watching while some old friends do a
line/Holding back the `want to' in my own addicted mind." Haggard tips his
10-gallon hat to Wills on the bouncy, fiddle-happy Texas swing of "Bareback"
and does an uncanny Cash impression on the first line of "I'm Still Your Daddy"
("I knew some day/You'd find out about San Quentin"). Virtuoso Norm Hamlet
drizzles delicious steel guitar all over the mid-tempo "Leavin's Getting
Harder" as Haggard weighs genre clichés of living on the road against
his urge to stay home. Indeed, most of this quiet, haunting disc is about
reconciliation and resignation, past and present, possibilities and
limitations. By the time you get to the masterful title track, a sad, Willie
Nelson-style ballad, its bone-simple lyrics creak under the weight of their
accumulated meaning, even as Haggard's voice soars. The song won't reward
repeated listenings: "If I Could Only Fly" will flatten you immediately or else
it'll never mean anything to you.
Haggard says that if his new disc stiffs, he'll leave country music for good
to focus on his own gospel label, which distributes directly to Wal-Mart. And
as good as it is, If I Could Only Fly does sound like the end of
something, not a new beginning: a round of acknowledgments, yee-haws, and
back-porch wisdom. If Haggard does opt out, you can't blame him.