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MATERIAL MATTERS : Merle Haggard Thinks of Himself as the Competition, Not Newer Country Stars

July 22, 1993|MIKE BOEHM | Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

Like a lot of people in the recessionary 1990s, Merle Haggard has had to cope with the workin' man blues. As one of the greatest singer-songwriters in country music history, Haggard will likely never be out of a job--at least not as long as he has the strength and inclination to keep on playing his music. At 56, he maintains a busy touring schedule, including two shows tonight at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa.

But it has been three years since Haggard's last album (not counting reissues), an unprecedented dry spell for an artist whose name first appeared on the country music charts in 1963 a month after John F. Kennedy died.

Speaking over the phone recently from his home in Palo Cedro, a Northern California town outside Redding, Haggard said that business haggling with his label, Curb Records, has been the primary cause of his recording drought. At the same time, he has been trying to resolve tax problems that landed him in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Haggard said he is selling the publishing rights to his catalogue to raise cash to satisfy the tax debt.

That double dose of the blues appears to be lifting, though. If all goes well, Haggard said, the bankruptcy will be settled and his differences with Curb smoothed out early next month.

"We've been at bay legally," he said of his thorny relations with the record company. "We just got in a spitting match for two or three years, and now it looks like we've come to an agreement, and we won't get into a mess again. In the senior years of my life, I really don't need all this."

Curb has tentatively scheduled an early October release for Haggard's next album, which he plans to call "Way Back in the Mountains."

(A Curb representative issued this statement: "There are no legal issues between Curb Records and Merle Haggard. Merle has delivered a new album for us, one we're very excited about.")

Haggard says he has a bit more recording to do before the record is finished, but he is upbeat about it.

"I was working with new people who inspired the songwriting nerve," he said. "At my age, that's a nice nerve to have stimulated. It's easy to get groggy and not want to say too much."

Haggard, a polite, low-key conversationalist, is full of praise for Max D. Barnes, the veteran Nashville songwriter with whom he wrote most of the album. Barnes' credits include Vince Gill's 1992 hit, "Look at Us," and Vern Gosdin's 1989 single, "Chiseled in Stone"--both co-written with the respective singers, and both awarded song-of-the-year honors by the Country Music Assn.

Haggard says he has to be inspired to write songs; he can't report to an office and begin to write, as do so many of the songsmiths who feed the contemporary country mill.

"I don't sit down and sweat songs out. Something has to turn my head to make me want to write about it and develop it," he said. "My association with Max has stimulated that. He's about my age, and started trying to write songs like me 30 years ago. He's a Merle Haggard protege, and I've been watching him do some of the best things that have been done lately. I think the proof is in the new album."

The past few years have been difficult for Hall of Fame-caliber country singers of Haggard's generation. While a new wave of stars has reached a widening country audience, scoring unprecedented sales, such veterans as Willie Nelson and George Jones, both old duet partners of Haggard, have gotten only middling results from their current releases. Consumed with the hot and the new, country radio programmers are prone to ignore what's still good about the old and the influential. As fundamental a country artist as Johnny Cash recently saw the handwriting on the wall and abandoned Nashville in favor of a new record deal with Def American, an alternative rock label.

Haggard, though, doesn't see the new country stars as his chief competitors for airplay attention. Instead, he says, the fellow he must outdo is named Merle Haggard. The problem, as he sees it, is that radio stations willing to play his stuff will be only too happy to play the old favorites (a catalogue of more than 60 Top 10 hits) unless he gives them something exceptional to supplant them.

"It's not Alan Jackson and Clint Black" who pose an obstacle, he said, citing two of the younger stars he has influenced. "Those guys are in my camp. They'd do anything to get a hit for me. The only reason (to get airplay) is if we (write) a hit song. It's foolish for me to put out a record if it doesn't have a chance to be better than anything I did. I'm (working on) a record that has the potential. If so, it will have the chance to get airplay like I did before."

Haggard's producer this time is James Stroud, who has had recent successes with Tracy Lawrence, one of those hot country newcomers, and John Anderson, a veteran who had suffered through a long drought until last year, when the Stroud-produced "Seminole Wind" album became a million-seller and reignited his career.

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