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Noel Haggard's Country Carries a Big Dose of Pop

Merle's son didn't see his daddy much growing up, but inherited his voice and countenance-- along with a penchant for hard living.

May 12, 1997|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hank Williams Jr. helped his career along, in no small part, by singing songs about his daddy, and by drawing allusions to him in others. In his heyday, he was pretty obnoxious about it too, drunk and stupid and downright puffed-up proud of it, as if following pop's footsteps to a self-destructive hell were some noble family tradition.

Now, along comes another singing scion of country music royalty, one who also has followed his daddy's drunken, drugged path. The difference here is that Noel Haggard, the youngest son of Merle, makes no boasts about his lineage or sordid past, says he's seen the error of his ways, and most important, might have a bit of talent in the balance.

Haggard, who plays tonight at Cowboy Boogie Company in Anaheim, is something more akin to Julian Lennon than Hank Jr. The similarities in voice from father to son are striking, as are the countenances.

Noel doesn't want to remind you that he's Merle's son with every breath he takes, but he is, quite naturally, proud of the pedigree. And while he's nowhere near the genius that daddy was and remains, well, few others in all of country are either.

Haggard's debut album, "One Lifetime," is an enjoyable, unpretentious excursion into old-fashioned, Bakersfield country, with a few concessions to modern country radio. Heavy on the acoustic guitars and lonesome, mournful melodies, there's no mistaking the debt it owes to Merle.

How does he handle the inevitable comparisons?

"It doesn't bother me," Haggard said in a recent phone interview. "Everybody's pretty kind. Nobody yells out, 'Hey Noel! You don't sound nowhere near like your dad' or anything. They're pretty good about it. They want to hear [such classic Merle Haggard songs as] 'Okie From Muskogee' and 'Swingin' Doors,' and it's an honor to do those for 'em."

Haggard, 33, grew up on the same Bakersfield property as his dad did, right next to that famous converted boxcar where Merle lived as a boy. He's a shy and introverted sort, a far cry from the pull-no-punches firebrand that is his father.

He stutters a bit in conversation, hasn't a bad word for anyone, is almost painfully polite and humble. That, perhaps, is because Noel was almost an adult before he really got to know his father.

"He worked most of the time--250 to 300 days a year he was gone, so we really didn't know him too well," Haggard said. "For a while, we'd call him 'Hey you!' One time over dinner he said, 'My name's Dad, and I don't ever want to hear that again!' We'd have to get to know him all over again every time he'd come home. It wasn't until I went on the road with him when I was about 18 that I really spent any time with him."

While Merle was child of poverty, Noel was child of privilege, yet still wound up going the same route as his Daddy. A high school dropout, Noel said he was a heavy drinker and drugger for the better part of his life. At 17, he stole a truck, went on a joy ride and spent a week in jail for his effort.

Merle, with a stint in San Quentin for armed robbery under his own belt, let Noel sit in his cell and think about what he'd done before bailing him out. Noel also has done stints in rehab, although he says he's clean and sober these days.

"I did everything," he said. "I drink a little beer now, that's about it. Things are so different now in the business these days, there's no room for that stuff anymore. Well, there's no room for it, period. I did enough to last me for life.

"I think the reason I did all that stuff is because I was screaming for attention," he said. "I really don't know why. . . . When you get to be 16 years old, you need to have someone around to keep you in line or you're gonna get into trouble, and [Merle] wasn't home a lot."

You'd think that with all this baggage, Haggard would have some stories to tell in song. The major surprise in "One Lifetime" is that there are no Noel Haggard songs on it.

"I do write. But down here [in Nashville] there's a writer on every corner and a lot of great songs being written. I thought what they had was quite a bit better than what I had to offer," Haggard said. "We're definitely gonna do one or two of my songs on the next album."

And what did Merle think of his progeny's maiden effort?

"He said he liked it, said it was a good first record and the next one will be better. It came out a lot better than I thought it was gonna be. I've listened to it a thousand times, and it's a pretty easy listen."

A humble-enough appraisal from a musician who realizes it would be foolhardy to chase his father's legend.

"I'd be satisfied just to get up there in the Top 10 and level off and have a good 10-year run at it, like George Strait and people like him have," Haggard said. "I just want to make an honest living at something I love and have a passion for. I didn't get a lot of school, so this is all I got."

* Noel Haggard sings tonight at Cowboy Boogie Company, 1721 S. Manchester Ave., Anaheim. Doors open at 7 p.m., show time is 9 p.m. $10. (714) 956-1410.

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