“Songwriting gets harder and harder, unless you just want to try to write a better version of what you’ve already done,” said Merle Haggard, 73, sitting in a Middle Tennessee studio and making clear that he wants much more than that.
Meanwhile, hundreds of nearby Nashville songwriters worked in vain to write even passable versions of what Haggard has already done. And what Haggard has done is to create a catalogue of work that is staggering in its size, breadth and brilliance.
Kris Kristofferson, whose own songs transformed the language of country music, calls Haggard “The greatest artist in American music history.” At the very least, Haggard is among the most skilled writers ever to set pen to paper and pick to string, and he has applied working man’s hours to an artist’s mindset. The April release of Vanguard Records’ I Am What I Am brought his career total to 76 albums in his 73 years, and almost all of those works have featured original material. He recorded 30 albums in the first nine years of his career, before he was 38 years-old.
“I’ve seen it all, and I’ve seen it go away,” he sings on the new album detailing the cultural, political and artistic triumphs and failings he’s witnessed in his time. Haggard, though, hasn’t gone away.
“I keep hoping to find a way to write a song that will move up to number one in my gathering of material, one that’s better than anything I’ve ever written,” he said. “That’s what keeps me alive: That hope that I’ll write the song that’ll knock me out and that will be better than ‘Workin’ Man Blues,’ and better than ‘Mama Tried.’ That’s my reason for believing. You know, a lot of times I thought it was all over.”
Over the past couple of years, there were others who thought it might be over. Haggard’s songs remained stout and incisive, but in November of 2008, he underwent surgery to remove cancer on his lung. It was a scary deal for Haggard, his family and his fans, but within two months he was back performing, and within a year he was, he estimates “95 percent recovered.” His recovery time was not down time, as he remained committed to bringing his music out on the road and to writing the songs that are heard on I Am What I Am. This year, he played six shows with Kristofferson, winning raves (The Chicago Sun-Times’ Dave Hoekstra called that pair “The Rembrandt and Picasso” of country music, with Hag taking the Rembrandt tag because of the human portraits he offers in song. And he’ll spent much of this spring and summer traveling, playing concerts with his band, The Strangers, a combo that has been given a youthful shot in the arm from Haggard’s 17-year-old son, Ben Haggard, who has been contributing lead guitar of late.
The Strangers provide most of the backing for the new album, with young Ben sharing guitar duties with Tim Howard. Co-produced by the elder Haggard and longtime collaborator Lou Bradley and recorded at Haggard’s Shade Tree Manor studio in Northern California, I Am What I Am fits comfortably into the immense Haggard catalogue, though any clenched-fisted sentiments found in some of his earlier work has been replaced by a weary, reflective graciousness. Merle Haggard is done shouting, but not done caring. In 1986, he told interviewer Alanna Nash, I’m changing my image… to one who gives a lesser shit than he used to.” Now, though, he sings, “I do what I do, ‘cause I do give a damn.” Changes in politics and music are met not with indignation but with a simple, “I’ve seen it all, and I’ve seen it go away.” And, far removed from his rambling days, he still finds much to provoke his curiosity. For Haggard, life remains the stuff of songs.
“I’ve always known that I was a gifted person,” he said. “I’ve always felt like I would be punished, severely, if I didn’t continue to make use of that gift. It’s very important that you don’t let the muscle get flabby. It’s really hard, as an old human being, to press as much weight as you pressed when you were a kid.”