MERLE HAGGARD WAS originally scheduled to play in town on August 11, but was forced to postpone the show when he got the call from his label that there was "more work to be done" on his new album. Usually under those circumstances the artist-snatching culprit is a giant multinational conglomeration that just happens to house a music division or a controlling Col. Parker/"Dr." Eugene Landy type of figure. But this time around, like fellow gracefully aging, fiercely independent hell-raisers John Doe and Tom Waits, Haggard decided to go with an indie: specifically, Anti Records, a division of mega-indie Epitaph (the label The Offspring built).
Apparently, the Anti anti-suits wanted every hair to be in place, but we'll get to that in a sec. First off, a brief history.
If tragedy spawns greatness, there is perhaps no finer living example than country legend Merle Haggard. Haggard's father died from a brain tumor when Merle was just nine years old, and, seemingly, the forgotten son never got over it. In the years following that pivotal event, he began a career of rebellion, drifting in and out of detention centers (escaping from them every chance he got), and eventually finding solace in the songs of Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. Legend has it that Haggard's career began in earnest when he either escaped from or was released from (depending on who you ask) one such high-security facility to attend a Lefty Frizzell show. After he made his way backstage to meet his idol and play him a couple of tunes, Frizzell was so impressed that he refused to go onstage until Haggard had made his performing debut in front of Frizzell's audience.
The crowd response was so enthusiastic that Merle decided to pursue a career in songwriting and performing, and the world of country music has never been the same since.
Haggard's career has spanned 40 years now, and without him, the canon of killer country tunes would be bereft of such classics as "Swinging Doors," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," "Mama Tried," "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde" and "Branded Man," not to mention his trademark hippie-bashing "Okie from Muskogee."
Just as two other outlaws, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, expanded the horizons of what country music can be, Haggard opened the doors of country to a lot of people who could have sworn they simply didn't like it, mainly because all three added ingredients of virtually every other existing American music form to the gumbo.
Now that you've had a crash course in Merle 101, on to the new album, the reason for the upcoming make-up date, after all.
If I could Only Fly, due in stores on October 10, ambitiously seeks to reinvent Merle in the same way as Cash's two Rick Rubin-produced discs for American Recordings and Willie's recent Daniel Lanois-produced platters, yet still retain that familiar sheen of cult of personality and sheer talent, as did those remarkable records.
Album opener "Wishin' All These Old Things Were New"'s first line initially reeks of shock value and a worn-outlaw trying to reestablish his backwoods cred ("Watchin' while some old friends do a line ..."). But then you realize it's actually both a harsh cautionary tale (that line is followed by "Holdin' back the want-to in my own addicted mind") and a celebratory reminiscence of the days before the bad stuff got the best of him ("Wishin' it was still a thing even I could do").
"Honky Tonky Mama" is all train-whistle bravado and faraway brass-blowin', blues harp-tootin' fun, and Merle wraps himself around the understated Spanish feel of "Crazy Moon" quite nicely. But following the ass-kickin' Western swing tune "Bareback," the record hits a lull(aby).
"Lullaby" is a misguided nursery rhyme to Haggard's kids, delivered in a puffily animated John Hartford-meets-Grover (the muppet, not the band) croak, and it kicks off three songs in a row with the same family concerns. "I'm Still Your Daddy" is a heartfelt explanation of his own past to his children ("I knew someday you'd find out about San Quentin ...") with an impossibly jaunty (and yes, catchy) chorus, while "Proud To Be Your Old Man" is a winningly lazy take on Broadway-worthy Dixieland jazz, and for once that's "old man" as in this is an ode to his ol' lady.
So the question is: Will If I Could Only Fly win favor with the kids? The answer, aside from the curious and a few Epitaph completists, is probably not. A savvy marketing team would have insisted on some electric guitars if they really wanted to accomplish the mission. Apparently, in the end, they were likely content with the path Merle wanted to follow. That is likely, after all, why he chose to go with an indie label to begin with, no?
Catch one of the few true living legends of country music when Merle Haggard and The Strangers (featuring Merle's ex-wife Bonnie Owens) appear at 8 p.m. on Saturday, September 16, at the Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave. Ticket prices range from $22.50 to $32.50, and are available at the Tucson Convention Center Box Office, 791-4266.