Merle Haggard: Just Pickin'

When speaking of truly groundbreaking artists who helped define a musical genre, one can?t ignore the huge impact Merle Haggard has had on country music. For more than 50 years, the maverick artist has been engaging listeners with soul-baring tunes of loneliness, frustration, hope and transcendence that are as well known for their lyrical depth as they are for the manner in which they?re delivered. His knack for phrasing, timing and using his voice as an instrument has remained unparalleled in country music. On top of that, he?s a helluva guitar player and band leader.

Haggard was born in a converted boxcar on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California. When he was 14 years old, his father died of a brain tumor. Restless, at 15, he ran away from home, got caught, and wound up in reform school. In the few years that followed, he worked a couple of odd jobs, but had a hard time staying out of trouble, which ultimately led to a number of jail stints. The bottom fell out when a safecracking bust landed the youngster in the infamous San Quentin. Thoughts of solitary confinement and the prison yard death of a friend was all the convincing Haggard needed to clean up his act. He?d always played guitar and sang, and upon his release from prison, he decided to take a stab at a musical career.

He got a job backing up Bakersfield country music star Wynn Stewart, who gave the young musician ?Sing a Sad Song? to record as a single. The record hit Number 19 on the country charts in 1963, and by 1965, Haggard had a recording contract with Capitol Records and began scoring a string of hard-boiled hit records, including ?Branded Man,? ?The Bottle Let Me Down,? ?Mama Tried,? ?White Line Fever,? ?Working Man Blues? and ?Okie from Muskogee.?

Thirty-nine #1 country hits and numerous awards (Grammy, CMA, ACM, and BMI have all acknowledged him), the 63-year-old Haggard is still turning heads with his latest release, If I Could Only Fly -- a reflective and exultant collection of sparsely arranged tunes that blend folk, pop, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, blues and even Brazilian rhythms. In the following interview, Hag discusses his guitar-playing influences, his technique and his cool Fender Signature Series Telecaster. What?s readily apparent on your latest release, If I Could Only Fly, is the guitar playing. Who were some of your influences?

Merle Haggard: Merle Travis was probably the first guy I heard who was referred to as a ?guitar player.? After him, it was Roy Nichols and Grady Martin. There?s a touch of Django Reinhardt in your playing. Was he an influence?

Haggard: I started getting into Django around 1955, as I began taking guitar playing seriously. And I go back and forth. Sometimes I listen to him for months at a time, then forget about him and then I?ll come back because he?s so good. A guitar player once told me -- I think it was Barney Kessel -- that things had advanced far beyond Django. I thought, ?Well that may be so, but you left a lot out [laughs].? I don?t believe Kessel ever advanced beyond that [laughs]. How would you describe your guitar-playing technique?

Haggard: When I?m recording, I?ll use my thumb to get a fatter tone. My normal way of picking is with a small, thick, black Gibson pick, and I use my index finger and my thumb and the whole bit. I understand you?re using a new acoustic guitar on the album?

Haggard: On the new album, there?s a song called ?Turn to Me,? and I play an acoustic break on the tune, using a little Rose guitar that Randy Travis gave me. It?s an awkward-looking little guitar -- and it?s not really that easy to play -- but it definitely has a little character of its own that we were looking for in the studio. With respect to your electric guitar playing, are you mostly using your Signature Series Telecaster?

Haggard: Yeah. It?s the best guitar I?ve ever owned. What were some of the specifications you oversaw with the folks at Fender in producing that guitar?

Haggard: You know how the neck and rest of the body of a Tele are bolted together? Well, my guitar?s neck dovetails. It?s contoured and it just kind of slides into the back of the guitar. It?s meant to carry the tone all the way from the bridge to the headstock. There?s a little more vibrancy traveling through the wood, because both slabs of wood are in contact with each other as opposed to being bolted together. Other than that, the idea for the guitar was taken from a ?57 Tele that I played for years. It was an old butterscotch Tele, and it was light. It didn?t weigh an awful lot. They?ve been saying for years that guitars don?t sound good unless they weigh a whole bunch. Well, that?s not true at all. This Signature Series model weighs only about eight pounds. The neck was the kind of neck that felt good to me, and Redd Volkaert [Haggard?s lead guitarist] and myself worked on that. What?s really noticeable, too, is that on the back pickup, with just a little roll-off of treble on the knob, I can get almost a Les Paul-like sound, which is not really typical for a Tele. The guitar?s not all that expensive either, when you compare it to gettin? a tooth pulled or something [laughs]. What kinds of amps are you using?

Haggard: I use two Fender Twin Bassman amps, and that?s about all I need. My tone is a lot like Keith Richards. I don?t use a lot of echo. I use a little dirt and that?s about it. I like to make the effects occur on the neck, rather than through some electronic thing. What about strings?

Haggard: I start with a 10, and then go up. But I?m not really happy with the strings I?m using right now. I?ve had a couple of them break up on me, and I?ve got little pieces of metal in my fingers. You?re also a darned good fiddle player. How did that come about?

Haggard: The fiddle on stage is a weapon [laughs]. If you?re on stage and something isn?t working and you need something to work, you can bring ?em to attention with a fiddle. It?s good to have it as a backup, especially when you?re winging it the way we do. We don?t have any [set] lists, and we go on stage with some guys that know everything we?re supposed to know. We hope. But sometimes the direction in which we head is not the right one. A good way to change that direction is to pick up the fiddle, and see if it works. For that reason, I spent seven years trying to learn to play the fiddle -- and I?m still tryin? to learn. Bob Wills was my biggest inspiration on fiddle. I admired his ability to lead a band, and change the pace with that fiddle. It really works for me.  

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