BACK TO HIS ROOTS

Merle Haggard shoots from the hip about today's country and his new old-fashioned music

Merle Haggard kicks back on the couch inside his tour bus and takes a long sip of coffee. Then he looks up, beaming like a proud papa.

"It's the best stuff I've ever done!" Merle declares of his new album, Roots, Vol. 1, set for early-November release. "And it was done in my front room! No studio, no recording techniques. Just straight into the mike, and straight out the speakers. Beautiful!"

The engine hums softly as his brow furrows. Merle, 64, ponders what he calls today's "designer country music," and how its computerized perfection drove him to make his new album using some old methods.

He had spent several years making records in his own state-of-the-art home studio, but wound up irritated with even that level of slickness. "I got real disgusted with everything, including my own music," he confesses. "I got so sick of picking it apart, making every note perfect. I was about ready to quit."

Then into Merle's life strolled Norman Stevens, who played guitar on Lefty Frizzell's classic late-'40s recordings. "He'd been living 10 miles from my house in northern California all this time, and I didn't know it," Hag utters, his voice soft with wonder. "He played on all of Lefty's first records - the ones I grew up loving. When I found out he was there, it was like something that was supposed to happen. It was amazing!"

The two worked together at Merle's house, utilizing the methods used on those classic Lefty songs. "Just the mikes and recorders," he explains. "No echoes, no studio crap. We just set up and played songs 'til we got 'em right. We did 23 songs that way." He sits back, a wide grin on his face. "It's the best I've ever done in my life!"

Hag realizes perfectly that making old-fashioned records is not the way to get radio airplay. "There's so much studio manipulation nowadays in order to get played on radio.

But we did the opposite," he smiles. "We made it just as raw as we could."

Not that Merle wants to keep company with what he calls the "disgusting and boring" music that's currently popular. "I damn sure don't like this bland sort of crap they've got going," he says. "I can't even listen to it. I still listen to the same people I listened to when I was a kid: Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell."

One way Merle has distanced himself from country's mainstream is by signing on with the Anti record label, home to more aggressive punk bands than country legends. He calls joining forces with the company "my smartest move ever. It appealed to me right off the bat, 'cause I liked what them young kids were doing. I like young, creative people."

As for the young singers who might follow in his footsteps, Merle figures that Nashville record labels are too focused on cloning whatever is popular to notice fresh, original talent. "They're out there, but they can't get on a label, because they're unique!" he declares. "There's gotta be a lot of good stuff out there, but it hasn't been exposed. Somebody's had a damn thumb on it!"

Still, he's optimistic - in a way. "The pendulum's gonna swing," he reckons. "It's got to! We can't go on with this bad entertainment!"

If the current state of country music isn't to Merle's liking, his home life certainly is. "They may have saved my life," he says of his wife, Theresa, and children, Bennie, 8, and Jenessa, 11. "I had planned to party all the way out before I met Theresa. I had a houseboat and plenty of money - I was all set up to party 'til I keeled over.

"When I first met her, she believed she could not have children - which was the only way I'd have anything to do with her! I said, 'I'm too old to have a family.' And right off the bat, she got pregnant!"

Merle relaxes at last, his face breaking into a warm smile.

"As somebody said, 'If you wanna make God laugh, tell him your plans!' "

- Marianne Horner

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