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BASS FISHIN’ & FASCISM: AN INTERVIEW WITH MERLE HAGGARD
The following is an unexpurgated interview with Merle Haggard from April of 2001.
I want to talk to you about being on Anti-/Epitaph a little bit, if you’re not tired of answering that question.
Merle: Not at all.
Specifically, what’s it like for you to be on a punk rock label?
Merle: Well, if I would have thought about it I would have done it sooner. It gets me out of the political circle of country music. There is a political circle that I don’t want to be involved with. I don’t want to play games any longer. I don’t want to be something that four or five record executives circle up and exchange backrubs over. With direct marketing and the capabilities that are available nowadays, Merle Haggard doesn’t need CBS any longer. We’re at a place right now if Elvis Presley were alive, he wouldn’t need RCA.
It’s kind of akin to Sun Records–even Tally Records–they were pretty independent, at least in the beginning.
Merle: Sure. We’re partners. And I like being partners with somebody who is not involved with playing games with other record companies and who is interested in building a new company that puts me on the wave of energy…there’s a wave of energy with this company and they came to me–it wasn’t me knocking on their door. And that part of it was right, too. I said: “I’m not making records for you, I’ve already got records made. If you like the ones I’ve got made, then we’re in business.” And they liked the ones I had made. If I Could Only Fly is the package I handed ’em.
Are you pleased with the results?
Merle: I’m real pleased. I think we’re gonna sell a lot of records on this company. We’ve sold a lot of records already. We’re outselling a lot of those new acts. And when you think about the fact that I’m selling records on Capital, and I’m selling records on CBS, and I’m selling records on MCA, and then there’s all the counterfeits…we’ve got a body of work that’s selling over there at Wal-Mart that includes thirty years of my life. Then, to have a record come out and grab a piece of the market–from myself–is hard to do. So we’re real happy. They’re gonna sell probably half a million records on this thing in the next few days. And, the neat thing about it is, we’re not like somebody depending on the charts or airplay to sell records, we’re selling them on the fact that there’s quality there. The proof’s in the pudding. It sells itself. Once the record gets out there and somebody happens to hear it, they want a copy of their own because it’s good. That’s like selling Best Foods Mayonnaise–you’re gonna sell some all the time.
Have you ever listened to the other bands on Anti-/Epitaph?
Merle: I don’t listen to other bands as much as I should. I’ve got my own music that inspires me to be what I am. I’m not getting any younger. It takes all the fire that I can come up with to generate enough energy to do our show and maintain the amount of albums and interviews and whatever I do to maintain this level of public exposure. And it’s demanding. It can go 24 hours a day if you let it. I just work for a while like hell, then I gotta take off a while. I’ve spent about 34 years doing this, I figure I need a break. I’m gonna take a god-dang break!
Another thing I wanted to talk about is your body of work. I was in Wal-Mart looking through the bargain CDs and I found an album you made in the early 70’s, I Love Dixie Blues, where you did a lot of Dixieland interpretations of your work. A lot of people wouldn’t associate you with jazz. I know you were on the cover of Downbeat some years ago, but a lot of people probably don’t equate Merle Haggard and jazz.
Merle: It’s strange enough. I’ve been on the cover of Downbeat which is a magazine about jazz. We have had sort of an underground reputation of being jazz players. I have some great jazz players in my band, and we do play a lot of jazz–more than people realize. Everything in our show is happening spontaneously–there’s no rehearsal, there’s no format. We walk out on stage like a baseball team walks out on the field, and we swat flies all over the park. There’s not a guy on stage who knows what I’m gonna do next. That’s the way we work, and that’s what makes it interesting. It’s fun. I couldn’t do it any other way. I gotta walk out there and have to use my wits to stay alive and to set a fire under my ass. The inspiration is pure embarrassment.
I’ve noticed the last few times I’ve seen you, you’ll play a song like “Are The Good Times Really Over?” and change the lyrics from “when a girl could still cook and still would” to “when a girl could still cook and chop wood”…
Merle: (Laughs) I get the damndest response. Sometimes it’s unbelievable. It’s so true. In the last 90 years we’ve gone from women who would go out and chop wood to women who wouldn’t consider chopping wood. We are the male gender of the species, and I don’t know if that’s good for us or not. I don’t know if we’re making progress or not. We’re letting them set up front and everything now. We’re relinquishing our control and I don’t know how smart that is. (Laughs)
I guess eras change…
Merle: I don’t say that it’s not for the better. I think they’re smarter than we are. It’s a proven fact that they have like 35 million more wires running through the sides of their brain than we do. They have an intuition way above average–pretty swift.
As far as the public’s perception of you, whatever that’s worth, has changed, too.
Merle: There’s an onion-skin level of existence in America that a lot of people don’t realize is there. The quality of freedom in America depends on the size of your pocket book. If you don’t have a big bankroll, you can’t claim all the rights of America. It costs money to hire an attorney and prove that you’ve got those rights. Unless you do that…or if you sign a ticket before you get to an attorney, you’ve already signed away all your rights down at the bottom of that ticket. There’s all kinds of stuff that they’re cheating us with. There’s just onion-skin levels of dishonesty that go all the way to the executive office of the state and federal governments. It’s all been right on TV. We’re watching this stuff that governor Gray Davis has done with the power bill…if that’s not a condition of our government…the way we’re set up all they gotta do is come in and drop the gate, we’re all behind bars now. They’ve completely done away with the night life in America–New York City, New Orleans and Seattle. The only states in the union that still have a night life are Texas and Louisiana. The Mothers of America have eliminated the bar business. There must have been 10,000 beer joints in California when I started playing music, and all those were breeding grounds for great musicians. Shit, that no longer exists.
Some of your older material, like “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, was really patriotic…
Merle: Well, I was dumb as a rock when I wrote those songs–I really believed in America. I’ve learned a lot since I wrote “Okie From Muskogee”…I was as dumb as the rest of America. Americans have educated themselves, too–they know there’s a double standard going on. There’s not anybody in America with any education or of normal intelligence that doesn’t understand that we’re in the fight of our lives to maintain freedom in this country. We’ve been taken over by tyrants. We’re being militarized. You can’t go from your car to an airplane without being shipped down. Hey listen, we’re real close to licking Nazi boots. If people don’t realize it and get a hold on it, it’s gonna slip right away and it’s gonna be over with. That thing that we enjoy called freedom and privacy and all of that will be a thing of the past, and the only way you’ll have it is if you have enough money to buy it. Whatever you do, make a lot of money–because you’re gonna need it.
Do you think it’s always been this way, or do you think things have changed?
Merle: No, it hasn’t always been this way. I’ve seen it come to be what it is. When I got out of prison in 1960, I was 23 years old. Okay, from the time I was 24 ’til I was 30, I lived a life playing beer joints that was more fun than Donald Trump could have in America right now. Donald Trump couldn’t have the kind of fun I had. I’m gonna tell you what, the Rat Pack didn’t have no more fun than I had. But that is not possible in America anymore. It’s not possible. Fun has been totally outlawed. You realize that?
Yeah, I do.
Merle: Fun has been totally outlawed. If it’s not organized and on a football field or down on a basketball court, or in an organized, unbelievable…athletic…ah god, what they…they ought to raise the goddamned basketball hoop! Raise that sonofabitch up to where those tall guys can’t get to it! What the hell, man? I don’t think they ought to let anybody over 6’5″ play the goddamned game! It’s not fair!
Merle: Man, I mean, look, they’ve got these steroid-overgrown people playing baseball…an average guy my size, you can’t even hardly buy a car anymore–it’s made for people that big. Things are changing, man. This is a different world than when I was living my life. I’m about to retire, and the funny thing is that I’m raising a young family–they won’t let me be old, they think I’m 28. And they treat me that way. I’m gonna do some radio, some television…maybe do a radio or television show once a week or something…a syndicated show. And I’m gonna play music and everything, but I’m not gonna maintain the stress of keeping a road band together anymore. I’m gonna put together a show built for a radio or television show once a week. I’m gonna play once a week, and the rest of the time I’m gonna fish and watch my kids grow up.
I know you live on Lake Shasta…I grew up going fishing and water-skiing there. The limit used to be like 11 a day, what’s the limit now?
Merle: Oh god, it’s good. Fishing up there…they’ve changed it. They’ve put in a different kind of bass up there that eats all the other bass and everything…but the damned thing is a Spotted Bass…and it’s just a great fish to catch. I got a guy that goes fishing for me–I can’t go myself sometimes, so I send a guy to go out there and get me some fish to eat–and he went out there and he said the first cast he caught a six-pounder. And the second cast he caught a four-pounder. Then he caught one that was about a pound-and-a-half, and then he caught another four-pounder–in like the first 30 minutes of the day. That’s how fishing is at Shasta right now, it’s really good.
The level of the lake is finally up…
There’s only one thing you can say about Shasta, there will not be one year following the other that will be like it was. In other words, the only thing that’s the same up here is change–it’s different every year. Looking at it from a five-year standpoint, I predict that these next two or three years will produce the biggest bass in America. The record Spotted Bass will be caught up here–that will be a thirteen-plus. They’re fixin’ to catch about a fourteen-fifteen pound Spotted Bass up here. I seen one, I know they’re up here. They look like a Striper, except the lateral stripe is zigzagged and spotted. And the belly’s whiter. Where the Largemouth is sort of yellow, there’s is pure white–and they’ve got a red eye like a Small mouth. The Small mouth and the Spot have bred together and they’ve got a fish up here they call the “High Bred”–half-Small mouth and half-Spot. When you eat it, it’s like a pork chop. That sonofabitch…I’m not kidding you man, it’s a piece of meat. They’re as strong and as tough…and they’re in this great, great water here at Shasta.
You know…I guess it’s not really related to Shasta Lake…but my dad was telling me about–he goes up to the Marble Mountains a lot–and they’ve got a lake up there that they’ve been stocking with fish and the environmentalists came in and said that the fish are eating all the salamanders. So they’re not going to let them stock fish up in the lake anymore, even though they’ve been doing it for 30 years.
Merle: Hell, that’s the chain of life. That’s just the way the chain of life goes. What they need to do is leave things alone. There’s a bunch of people that come up here with ideas about how to straighten nature out. About every five years, here comes another batch of scientists with a different take on what to do in order to improve the future. And 99% of their performance–if you judged it over the last 35 years–has been a total failure! What have they done? They’ve taken…they’ve changed the whole structure of the lake up here when they brought those Spotted Bass in here. They brought them in from Kentucky. It totally eliminates everything. The Largemouth is a rare fish to catch out there now. And, they brought Florida Bass in. Now, what you’ve got mainly, is Floridians, a High-Bred, a Small mouth, a Spot…but the true Small mouth and the true Largemouth that were predominant in this Northwestern part of the United States is gone. The sonofabitch is gone! What we got now is this “Super fish” out here, the Spotted Bass, which is great–it’s a great fish to eat. It’s the toughest fish you’ve ever seen. It won’t die. That sonofabitch will lay out there on the ground and flop for fifteen minutes after you catch it. It’s the toughest sonofabitch you’ve ever seen. Eat it…it’s the best goddamn eatin’. Like eatin’ a pork chop. And it’s got red eyes and acts like a Small mouth–it’s a Spotted Bass. But the point is, they’ve changed that. They’ve done that with birds, they’ve done that with fish, they’ve done it with…now they’re messing with the weather. They’ve got these people up at the North Pole that’s shooting radio beams into the storms and heating up the storms so they can get the twister effect going. You know that’s going on, don’t you?
No, I didn’t know anything about that.
Merle: Well, investigate it. Tell everybody what’s going on. A lot of people don’t realize what’s going on. We’re fixin’ to have a global storm. The whole world is in trouble. The wolves are gnawing the roofs off the houses in Siberia.
That’s what we’re facing in the next century. Everyone’s struggling for control over the environment, and what we think we want to do with the environment. You know, living up there in Shasta County…all that and north is just an environmental battleground. It’s hard for me to pick a side because I see both perspectives. I don’t think you should let people go in and rape the wilderness, but at the same time I don’t think most of these supposed scientists know what in the hell they’re talking about half the time…
Merle: I think what we should do in the meantime, until we’ve done a correct study, is everybody ought to stop cutting trees. That’s what I think. There’s one thing for certain–we have raped. I’ve been alive long enough, I’ve watched them rape. Every man ought to have to carve his living out of something that doesn’t have to do with something nature gives you. Every man ought to be carve his living out of life without fuckin’ cutting trees down. For a while. I’m not saying forever. Until we figure out what is an actual quota that we can cut and have them re-grow. Hey man, we’re bullshitting ourselves…those trees take 300 years to replace. They haul stuff out of here everyday, I watch ’em on log trucks. I’ve watched ’em for forty god-dang years hauling stuff out of here that people should be ashamed to cut down, man–so big that you couldn’t get three logs on a truck. They’re still doing it. The whole goddamn…all these mountains up here are becoming bare. They’ve got a facade going along the road, and inside the facade it’s all cut down. It’s a sad situation, man. We’ve got millions of acres at the headwaters up here and people like this Horowitz, back there in Texas, says he didn’t need to see what he was cutting down. Somebody asked him to come out here and take a look at what he’s cutting down, since it’s worth more money standing than it is cut down, and he said “Hell, I don’t need to look at it, I own the sonofabitch–cut it down!” See, that sort of attitude…when you realize that you’ve got that mean, un-investigated attitude…what it means is everybody needs to stop and see what we’re doing before it’s too late. Because I’m gonna tell you man, if we cut all the trees down on this planet, we’re not gonna be able to breathe–we’re gonna suffocate. It’s as simple as that. We’re right on the goddamn edge of fucking ourselves to death. We better get a handle on it.
Yeah, the problem is, I guess, is people get sidetracked–just like in anything political. The issues become so miniscule. The big issue will be abortion. Or, like the big issue with environmentalism will be the Spotted Owl. People are missing the bigger picture.
Merle: Well, the Spotted Owl wasn’t really what that was about.
No, but that ‘s what it becomes–a debate over something insipid like that. But it’s really hard to tell people they’ve got to change their occupation, especially up there–they don’t want to hear that.
Merle: Nobody wants to hear that. I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to be the guy that relays the message. But, the facts…I mean, we can stick our fuckin’ heads in the sand as a society and say “It’s alright, go ahead and cut some more trees” but that is not the goddamn condition. That is an idiot’s decision, to allow it to go unreported. I don’t give a fuck…hey, I worked in the woods like everybody else. I worked in a plywood factory in Arcata, CA. I’ve enjoyed and known more saw men than most men alive. My father in law was the axe-throwing champion of the United States for 20 years. I’m a woodsman, I love the people that live in the woods. I know what you’re saying, but that doesn’t change the facts of where we’re at in this place and time. We’ve got to stop and say “Look, can we afford to suffocate ourselves in order to provide ourselves with employment?”
Right. See, you’ve got an open mind. A lot of people don’t have that.
Merle: I just try to look at it as what I believe is right for the most people. I don’t try to be selfish with my opinion. I think it’s necessary for us to hang on to what trees we have left. Trees are a part of our supply of oxygen and we’re facing a chemical warfare in the future that may be a reality any moment. They’re talking about high tech chemical warfare. Someone can give a command and poison the entire nation. And here we are cutting down our only source of oxygen, it doesn’t make sense in this time and place.
Yeah, you have children. You have young children right now. Are you worried for them in the future.
Merle: Absolutely. I feel sorry for ’em. I feel sorry for you. How old are you?
Merle: Oh my god. If you were 50 years old, you’d be mad.
That’s what my dad says.
Merle: Oh, you’d be madder than hell. To give you an idea of what you missed…I saw it go from a paradise where a guy could go to a Saturday night dance and have a fistfight and go home and heal up and nobody shot at nobody, two lane highways, entryways into each city that were unique, and the biggest thing that happened was the railroad train. That was the society that I came out of. And this chaotic mess that we’ve got going now…I’m sorry for you.
I’m sorry for myself a little bit.
Merle: I am! I’m serious, man. I’m proud I got to see it before it all went away. And it did, it’s all gone away. You young men have got to bring it back. It’s up to you, I can’t pull the fuckin’ wagon no more. At our age we’ve done all we can do. But we can tell you this, that you’re letting it slip away. You need to grab a hold of it, don’t let people push you around. You gotta get these goddamn warmongers out of the White House before they kill us all!
What do you think of George W.?
Merle: I think the guy has got a lot of good ideas about the figures and the financial part of our country. I like his tax ideas and all that–I think they’ve been overtaxing us for a long time. The proof’s in the pudding–they’ve got excess money. The money belongs to us, he’s right about that. I don’t know whether he’ll pick up the dynasty war in Iraq. Does he represent oil, and only oil. How can he be who he is without being involved with the oil? Those realities make it hard for me to say what I think about him at the moment. I haven’t really drawn a conclusion–I’m holding my breath.
Me too. I’m just sort of going along for the ride right now. You’ve met a couple of presidents, right? You met Nixon. You met Reagan…
Merle: George Sr. called me and wished me a happy birthday last year.
Merle: No, they consider me as their family friends. I don’t have anything against George W. at the moment, but I am holding my breath. He’s a young boy–a young man. I like his apparent personality. Only time will tell if we’re not dealing with the guy he claims he is or not. We’ve got to find out how realistic he is. I like him more each day, I will say that. I didn’t like him at all at first.
Neither did I, until I saw him slap his wife’s ass on television.
Merle: Well, I didn’t see that, but I’m glad I heard about it. I like him a little better on account of that. He slapped his wife’s ass on TV–I like him better for that. That may be the only first lady who got slapped in public–anywhere.
Not a hard slap, just a little pat.
Merle: A little pat. That’s neat. I like him better now. I like what he said down there at the deck for the Ronald Reagan inauguration deal–for the boat. Did you see that?
No, I didn’t see that.
Merle: They cracked champagne across the bow of the Ronald Reagan–the newest aircraft carrier–and Nancy was there. She sat between President and Mrs. Bush–I watched the whole deal. He said some really neat things–I don’t know if he writes his own speeches or not. But he said some pretty nice things, thanking Mrs. Reagan for taking care of Ronnie at a time when the government should be taking care of him, but they didn’t have…someway he worded it, like the entire United States couldn’t do the job Nancy’s doing taking care of the ol’ boy that tried to take care of us. I think ol’ Ronald Reagan, they told him about Contra bullshit down there and made a liar out of him because they didn’t tell him what was going on. I think George Bush was running that damn deal. So…you can put that into your presidential pipe and smoke all that information and see what you come up with. See if my memory is correct. When George Bush and the CIA, back at the time when all that Contra deal went down and all that dope exchange was going on, and they were doing all those transactions up there in Arkansas–you don’t suppose they called up there and said “Lookee here, Clinton, if you let us use Arkansas, you’ll be president. If you don’t, we’ll kill you.”
Merle: Isn’t it funny they had a Bush come in. Bush let him have the office, then Bush took it back when he…uh, wait a minute, maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’m crazy.
Maybe I’m crazy, too.
Merle: All that’s laying out there, isn’t it?
Sure, there’s infinite possibilities.
Merle: Well, it sure don’t look good. It looks like we got a dynasty in there, see, that ‘s what I’m worried about–and it has to do with oil.
I’ve got one more question for you, then I’ll let you go.
Merle: I’m fixin’ to go eat, what’ve you got to say?
Just one thing. What do you think about what they call “New Country”?
Merle: I don’t give it much thought. I’ve been thinking about having some sort of a transplant, or belly button installation. I want to have myself a new belly button made where I can compete with this new country. I was gonna have some real neat peach fuzz growing on there, and I was gonna put it on my new album. Nah, I’m just kidding you. I don’t really give it a lot of thought. The new country, I lost interest in it when it all started to sound alike–when the emotion went out of the music, and the chance for an Elvis Presley to show up went away. They started force-feeding us. I don’t listen to it–I listen to talk radio.
Anything in particular?
Merle: I stay with that Premier Network mostly all day. I like Art Bell at night, and I listen to Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura, and Michael Reagan in the evening. I spend a lot of time listening to AM radio. But I don’t dig new country. I’m not even digging rock ‘n’ roll right now. I just don’t dig…I’m tired of that frickin’ drum! I’m tired of that goddamn big ‘ol bass drum, and that big loud bass beatin’ you in the head in that car that goes by that sounds like somebody’s got a goddamn bass drum inside. I can’t stand that. I hate that. The music I make is in the opposite direction of that.
Alright. Well, I’ll let you eat some lunch.
Merle: Talk to you later.