MELLOW MERLE

Nearing 70, country outlaw Merle Haggard does Frank (and Dean and Bing) for his new pop standards CD.

Merle Haggard stops the music. He's rehearsing at Hollywood's legendary Capitol Recording Studios, and wants the musicians to play a little softer. "It's a little bitty room," he tells them.

An engineer's voice pipes in from the control room: "It sounded good in here."

"Well," Haggard responds diplomatically but firmly, "it'll sound better if they do what I tell 'em!"

Merle knows what he's talking about-after all, this studio is very familiar territory. It's here that he recorded such classics as "Mama Tried," "Today I Started Loving You Again" and "The Fightin' Side of Me."

This room has also seen sessions by pop legends like Frank Sinatra, Nat "King" Cole and Dean Martin, making it the perfect place for Merle to introduce an invitation-only crowd to music from his new album, Unforgettable, a collection of pop standards.

"As a child, I probably sang more Bing Crosby songs than Hank Williams songs," he says. "I've always been a fan of this kind of music."

A few years ago, it seemed as if the album might never be released. A copy of Unforgettable, which was actually recorded in 2001, was put up for sale online by a concert promoter who was angry with Merle for cancelling two shows. The dispute ended in a legal settlement. "The album's already got quite a history," says Merle.

History is foremost on Unforgettable, though not all the songs are old standards. Merle wrote one of the newer tunes, "What Love Can Do," with wife Theresa. "She and I have been writing together for almost 20 years," Merle notes. "When I first met her, I didn't know she was interested."

"I didn't know I was interested!" Theresa interjects.

"And I've been tutoring her all these years," Merle continues. "She's really a fine writer in her own right." He adds with a wink, "She stole my secrets!"

It's a fair trade-after all, Theresa has provided Merle with the most stable relationship of his life. They married in September 1993-"It seems like yesterday, don't it?" he says with a glance toward Theresa-but have actually been a couple since the mid-1980s. That makes their union already longer than any Merle enjoyed with his previous four wives, and he admits that he's "probably more serious about this" marriage than the others.

"She and I might as well get used to each other," he adds. "We're goin' all the way to the end. All we got to offer is ourselves, might as well hang on to each other."

Merle and Theresa do have two children: Jenessa, 15, and Ben, 12. The kids aren't around today-in fact, they're spending two weeks at home while the parents are away. "Our hearts are broken, because we call home and they're not too concerned about us being home," Merle notes.

Theresa figures the kids are simply trying to assert a little independence and show that they're becoming adults. Merle agrees, but he can't help being affected, nonetheless.

"It's very hard to have enough wisdom to see that and not have your feelings hurt just because they're growing up," explains Merle.

Merle turns 68 in April, which puts him in an unusual situation: raising two school-age children at a time when he's old enough to retire. Meanwhile, his older children have kids of their own.

"It's a balancing act between being grandpa and father," Merle observes. "Old age is really different when you finally embark upon it. There's a lot of responsibility being a grandfather and a lot of responsibility being a dad.

"And then you throw in the husband equation with a young, beautiful wife and a career, and you've got yourself a pretty busy old man!"

- TOM ROLAND

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