Smart Ass: The Music Journalism of Joel Selvin
By Joel Selvin
Hardcover, 416 pages
List price: $19.95
The Last True Cowboy
Real country music may be dead, but Merle Haggard carries on the original sound.
Before Haggard would allow a reporter to visit his home outside Redding, he wanted to meet me at a concert appearance in Santa Rosa so he could look me over, sort of a cool check to see if I could hang. A corpulent Cajun named Rodney brought me to the bus. "You don't have a problem with marijuana?" he asked. Merle and his guitarist were each smoking their own pipe -- no unhealthy cigarette papers for Merle; that stuff will kill you. I pulled out a joint and tore it open on the table. We got along fine.
Country music is over. There are lots of rock singers wearing cowboy hats these days, but genuine country music is all but dead and gone. Willie Nelson is still doing his thing -- which has as much to do with country music as the Grateful Dead has to do with rock. Johnny Cash is suffering from some mysterious debilitating illness. Buck Owens lost half his tongue to cancer. George Jones is out there... somewhere. Merle Haggard is one of the last damn cowboys left.
Country music used to stand for something. It was country music, not city music, the farmer's friend, the voice of the people, the white man's blues. The men who made this music were truly men to be reckoned with -- towering figures of imperfect character who looked over the abyss and brought back their tales.
Hank Williams was the archetype -- the tortured-genius country boy who wrote simple, direct, heartfelt songs that touched people's lives. He died at 29 on New Year's Eve in 1952, full of booze and pills, roaring down the highway in the backseat of a Cadillac on his way to another gig. These were desperate men.
They made this music because there wasn't really anything else they could do.
Today's country superstars grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd, wondering if they could borrow dad's car for a Friday-night date only to wind up hanging out with their buddies at the mall. Country music was a career decision, a "direction." Predictably, their records are puerile confections, full of chintzy drum machines and processed vocal sounds, and every one of them would need a ladder just to kiss Ernest Tubb's butt.
Haggard, long one of country music's most resolute traditionalists, is going backward. He is going back to the past to see if he can find something that was lost along the way. Haggard, who turned 64 years old April 6, is the living repository of country music's great traditions.
This is not some empty platitude; he lives among CD boxed sets of old-time country music and museumlike memorabilia, from instruments that belonged to the music's greats to old 78s framed and mounted on the walls.
He says he is tired and speaks of quitting the road, maybe settling in for some long-term residency at a Reno hotel. But really, he is a man at the peak of his powers. His latest album, "If I Could Fly," is easily one of the best of his nearly 40-year recording career. His voice has aged like fine leather. But he is far from the Nashville crowd these days.
The new album was released by Epitaph Records, a successful punk rock label that had never put out anything remotely like the Haggard record before. But like the punk rockers, Haggard, too, has always been an outsider.
He is hurtling down the highway in his Ford Expedition, the Eddie Bauer model, toward Redding, past new roadside businesses like a self-storage lot. The sight doesn't make him happy. "It's exploded the past five years," he says disdainfully. "Look at it -- it's just like the edge of L.A."
Haggard smiles his trademark teeth-baring grin that tightens the lines roadmapping his face. His hawk eyes bear down, and he raises an eyebrow questioningly. He is short, compact, a tightly coiled spring in a pair of seven-dollar granny glasses with blue lenses. His salt-and-pepper beard may give him a stately Lincolnesque air, but the blue ovals over his eyes and the black fedora he plunked on his head make him look more like an escapee from a ‘60s biker movie. Plus, he's stoned. His ever-present pipe is clutched between the fingers of one hand and an M&Ms tube full of buds is nearby.
Haggard obviously has no use for any big city, even a backwater one like Redding. He stays away from Los Angeles. And he stays away from Nashville, too.
He has spent the last 22 years living around Lake Shasta in the foothills at the north end of California's Central Valley. There isn't another country star living within a hundred miles. Hell, two hundred miles.
Haggard first saw Lake Shasta on one of his early tours in 1963. He bought a lakeside cabin sight-unseen and spent an idyllic Memorial Day weekend there in 1969 with his second wife, Bonnie Owens, who still sings in his band. He moved north full time from Bakersfield in 1978.
During the '80s, in between marriages, he owned a place called the Silverthorn Resort, a marina, some houseboats, a few cabins and a bar and grill. He lived on his houseboat. "We had a new set of women renting houseboats every Wednesday, and every Friday we held a wet T-shirt contest to take a look at the competition," he said.
He is a long way from that kind of debauchery now. He met Theresa, his fifth wife, while he was still married to his fourth. She was a wild child who came to a Merle Haggard concert in 1984 with the guitar player and left with the bandleader. They lived on the houseboat together for years. But after Theresa got pregnant with their daughter, she and Merle sobered up, moved out of the houseboat and haven't looked back.
Excerpted from Smart Ass: The Music Journalism of Joel Selvin by Joel Selvin. Copyright 2010 by Joel Selvin. Excerpted by permission of SLG Books.