Merle Haggard: Still a Maverick

He's a certified country music legend, with 39 No. 1 country hits and a plaque in the Country Music Hall of Fame. But these days, Merle Haggard doesn't have much to do with the country music "business," at least in regard to his choice of record labels.

Haggard's new album, If I Could Only Fly, has been released in association with Epitaph Records, which, of course, specializes in the punk rock sounds of Rancid, Bad Religion, and the Voodoo Glow Skulls, among others.

As it turns out, it's a surprisingly good fit for Haggard, who turned 63 last April.

"Well, let me say this — I'm much more proud to be on a punk rock label with some young kids that are doing something innovative rather than to be with people that's doing nothing but copying each other, running around in a circle with no songs," he says. "I'd rather see purple hair out there — I'm tired of belly buttons, you know what I mean?"

Haggard is currently on the road promoting the new album, and in addition to the concert venues, honky-tonks, and casinos that he usually plays, he'll be dropping into some rock clubs as well, like New York's Irving Plaza and St. Louis' Mississippi Nights. For Haggard, whose career has seen thousands upon thousands of one-nighters, it's all pretty much the same.

"You know, I never did draw the line," he says. "I've always been a guy that had a band who could play just about anything you wanted to hear. I grew up in the beer joints of California playing rock and roll music: Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, stuff like that. My heart and soul has always been where it's at, and they put me where they want me. Right now it seems they'd rather have me over there [at the rock clubs]."

If I Could Only Fly is Haggard at his most human, addressing some of his weaknesses, including drug use ("Wishing All These Old Things Were New"), his convict past ("I'm Still Your Daddy"), and the continuing demands of the road ("Leaving's Getting Harder").

"I didn't intend to have a young family at this period of my life," Haggard says of the latter tune. "I should be doing exactly what I want to with nobody in the way and no other reasons to want to stay home. But I have a couple of children [a daughter, 10, and a son, 7] and a lovely wife [Theresa, his fifth], and we can't just take them with us. They have to go to school, and it's kind of a heart-ripper every time we have to go. I'm missing my kids' childhood again. That's the main reason for those feelings, I guess.

"The road gets older. It's getting so like the music. It used to be that you could look forward to the town that was coming up next and know that it would have a sign with something proud to say at the edge of town, saying, 'This is so and so.' But anymore, it's a four-lane [highway] with offramps and Wendy's burgers and the same old deal. It don't make no difference where you're at."

Haggard has always been one to speak his mind, and these days, the topics that often surface include governmental fraud, especially regarding America's drug policy. Haggard — who has enjoyed his share, thanks, and accepted the consequences for his actions — thinks everyone else should be allowed to do the same.

"It seems like it's all right for the higher echelon, the judges and whatever, to snort what they want to snort and then sit behind the bench and send somebody to prison," he says. "I think people, 21-year-olds, should be able to do what they want to do as long as they don't break the law. How they get to the position where they're at should be their business. It's like they don't want you — they're going to [urine] test you every Monday morning. If you call this a free society, you'd have to be really stretching the phrase, I think."

Surprisingly (for a man of his age and profession, at least), Haggard sees the Internet as perhaps the last bastion of true American freedom, the place where information can be disseminated without governmental interference.

"I think the computer, the communication on the Interweb [sic] — that just might save our freedom," he says. "They can't stop it; the government can't get in there and do something. There's a possibility that the sleeping giant might come alive and take this country back."

And if you feel otherwise — well, you're getting on the fighting side of Merle.