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POP MUSIC

At Peace With the Hard Years

A philosophical Merle Haggard is focusing on his new life and a CD he hopes will renew his career.

October 08, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is the Times pop music critic

Merle Haggard has averaged about 150 concerts a year since 1965, which means he's on a stage for the 5,000th or so time on this weekday evening at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Irvine. It's the fourth stop on a 28-city tour that will take him to 16 states over the next two months.

Many of the fans have been coming out to see Haggard for years, and they raise beer bottles and cheer loudly each time he sings one of the hits--and he's had lots of hits, including 65 consecutive Top 10 country singles from 1966 to 1985. That's more than Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson combined.

Those hits--including "Swinging Doors," "Mama Tried" and "The Bottle Let Me Down"--were autobiographical tales of prison, heartache and poverty, and Haggard sang them with a character and conviction that made him the most influential country singer of his generation. There has always been poetry in his words and soul in his voice.

But if you listen hard to Haggard's voice now, there's a bit of a distance between the man and his words. Somewhere in all those shows and all those years, the early tension and bite have given way to a warm, even philosophical tone.

It's not that Haggard, at 63, has lost his edge. His life has simply changed, and he reflects those changes in his new songs and in his approach to the classics.

After three divorces, five record labels, bankruptcy court, and various drug and alcohol problems, Haggard seems to finally be comfortable with himself. He is happily married and lives with his wife, Theresa, and their two children (a boy, 7, and a girl, 10) on a 180-acre ranch near Redding in Northern California. He even suggested in his autobiography last year that this will be his last year on the road.

But he's already rethinking that decision, thanks in part to a new album that is being released by Anti Records, a subsidiary of Epitaph, a punk label best known for launching such acts as Rancid and the Offspring.

Anti/Epitaph may be a strange recording base for a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, but the label feels like a life raft to Haggard. It's been more than a decade since he's had a hit in the country field because his music--like that of other veterans such as Nelson and Cash--is considered out of step with the slick, pop-conscious sounds favored by country radio programmers.

For Haggard, the new album, titled "If I Could Only Fly" and due in stores Tuesday, could revitalize his career--or become a last hurrah.

"Everything sort of hinges on the new record," he says, sitting in his custom-built tour bus before the Crazy Horse show. "To be honest, I get tired sometimes living off things I had already done. If I could be accepted as a top-drawer entertainer again, then I'll stick around. If not, I'll go home and whittle, and have a little fun raising my kids and going fishing."

Haggard's new label hopes to appeal to traditional country fans as well as the roots-conscious pop-rock audience that follows such veteran artists as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.

Indeed, Epitaph signed Waits to its Anti label and marketed his "Mule Variations" album so aggressively last year that the critically acclaimed collection sold about 400,000 copies in the U.S., which is significantly more than Waits had been selling in recent years.

"I don't just see Merle as a 'country' artist," Andy Kaulkin, president of the Los Angeles-based Epitaph, said in a separate interview. "I see him as a really innovative artist whose music could appeal to a wide variety of audiences.

"I think the people who bought [Dylan's] 'Time Out of Mind' or Tom's 'Mule Variations' will also respond to this record if they hear about it. And the thing we do at Anti is to utilize some of the same street marketing techniques that we use to reach punk-rock kids who don't depend on radio to find out about music."

The press kit accompanying the album comes with testimonials from all sorts of Haggard fans, from Keith Richards to Elvis Costello. Admirers also range from Dylan to the Grateful Dead.

Kaulkin's original idea was to put Haggard together with a producer who has a feel for both country music and a wider contemporary market--someone like Pete Anderson, who works with Dwight Yoakam, or Steve Earle, whose own albums were among the most acclaimed of the '90s.

"But he shot me down right away," Kaulkin said. "He said he wanted to do his own thing. I got the idea that this was the first record he's done in a long time where there weren't any Nashville compromises involved."

Bonnie Owens, who has sung harmonies on record and onstage with Haggard for most of his career and was married to him for a while in the '70s, says Haggard was discouraged by the way he's been treated by the Nashville powers in recent years.

Owens was a cocktail waitress at the Blackboard, a country music club in Bakersfield, when she first heard Haggard sing.

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