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Over the hill? Heck, no, says Haggard

By Mario Tarradell / The Dallas Morning News

Merle Haggard's survival instincts are as straightforward and penetrating as the lyrics of his best country songs. Here's a man who's lived through five marriages, time at San Quentin, heart surgery, bankruptcy, drugs and life on the road.

He always comes back fighting, no matter how haphazard his recordings have been since his last bona fide hit, 1989's "A Better Love Next Time." Like his life, Mr. Haggard's artistic career – from his mid-'60s classics to his fruitless '90s stint with Nashville's Curb Records – has been a roller-coaster ride characterized by slow rises, fast plunges and plenty of bumpy curves along the way.

"I've had a pretty good tussle," he says, then lets out a roaring chuckle, the kind fortified by years of caffeine, nicotine and hard liquor. "There's been lots of mountains, lots of valleys, and we've come out of a tremendous valley."

Mr. Haggard speaks for himself, and for fellow country legends Johnny Cash, George Jones and Willie Nelson. Today, with each having more than 30 years of tumultuous life experiences to draw from, they all want a record label that will give them the creative freedom they need to make gutsy, heartfelt music. After all, they are the singers, songwriters and pickers who shaped the country music genre, the ones who influenced a slew of young guns. They deserve to be treated as icons, not past hitmakers.

And increasingly, they are looking beyond Nashville for respect – and the opportunity to do what they do best.

Mr. Haggard's new recording contract with Los Angeles-based punk-rock label Anti/Epitaph puts him in the same league as Mr. Jones, Mr. Cash and Mr. Nelson. All are signed to forward-thinking imprints that have resuscitated their careers without changing an artistic lick.

Seven years ago, Mr. Cash was lured back into the studio by rock-rap producer Rick Rubin, who signed the Man in Black to the label president's then-fledgling American Recordings. Three years later, Mr. Nelson inked a deal with Island Records. Then, in 1998, Mr. Jones moved over to Nashville-based Asylum Records after several struggling years with MCA Nashville.

"Three out of the four are on non-country labels," says Evelyn Shriver, president of Asylum Records. "That's the sadness of it all from the country music industry. They are so willing to toss their treasures, their legendary artists. You don't see that happening in the rock world. One of the most prestigious things associated with Asylum is that it has George Jones. Why the country industry doesn't see the merit in that is sad. It's hurtful to them that their own industry has rejected them."

In Nashville's high-stakes mainstream country music industry, where multi-platinum sales, pop-crossover and youth-driven images are top priority, gray-haired veterans like Mr. Haggard, Mr. Jones, Mr. Nelson and Mr. Cash have no niche. And no chance for radio airplay, especially when many country stations are so concerned with today's big acts that they consider traditionalist Randy Travis, who emerged in 1985, too old for their playlists. For most Nashville label executives, these legends are yesterday's moneymakers.

And yet Mr. Haggard and his compatriots have all resurfaced to find acceptance and respect on the outskirts of the Nashville system.

The Hag is the last of the four to sign a label contract that allows him to make the kind of records he wants. He endured a decade of creative and business turmoil capped by a stifling three-album stint at Curb Records, a label that didn't promote his music and saddled him with low-rent production values and even cheaper-looking CD covers.

Now, Mr. Haggard is basking in the critical glory showered on If I Could Only Fly, his first album for Anti/Epitaph. The Anti contract, a one-album deal with the option for a second, is a win-win situation for Mr. Haggard, who gets unquestioned creative control without any lengthy or binding legal obligations. Suddenly, the Bakersfield renegade is hip again. Rolling Stone raved about the record, a personal, piercing song cycle about his life experiences, as did Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times. And, lo and behold, there's the bearded and booted country legend talking frankly and ferociously in the November issue of Spin magazine, the hip, alternative rock publication.

"I want to be over there with the young, youthful, creative people that rebel against the way things are," says Mr. Haggard, who performs Saturday at Fort Worth's Billy Bob's Texas. "I don't like the way they are either."

"I'm trying to get played in the rock 'n' roll field. I want them to accept me over there. If they're not going to accept me in country music, then why in the hell can't I be accepted as a rock 'n' roller? They've got to take me somewhere. I'm worthwhile; I play in tune. Come on. I want the coffee and the caffeine. I want the full cup, yeah."

That hunger, coupled with the pain of lives characterized by drinking, cheating and honky-tonking, prompts great country music. Mr. Jones' 1999 comeback album, Cold Hard Truth, cemented his reputation as the most heart-wrenching country singer of our time. Then, with diligent work from Asylum – and unexpected publicity generated from his near-fatal car accident shortly before the album's release – "Choices," the set's first single, got Mr. Jones back on country radio. The tune's success (it was a Top 30 hit) and the CD's strong reviews turned it into a gold-selling album. This year, Mr. Jones won a Grammy award for his vocal performance on "Choices."

"Artists ought to be able to go in and do the songs that they feel, songs that they can put their everything into," says Mr. Jones. "This is our life. We put our whole life into what we do. Just because somebody else might think we ought to hang it up because we got a few gray hairs or something, they're crazy. You can't just throw this aside and go on to something else."

Like Mr. Jones, who found himself ready to just tour and not record after a lackluster seven-year run at MCA Nashville, Mr. Cash was also ready to retire from recording albums. Then Rick Rubin walked into his life.

Mr. Cash's first Rubin-produced project, 1994's stark, acoustic American Recordings, won a Grammy in the contemporary folk field. It was a startling album, a project that highlighted the plaintive strength of Mr. Cash's booming baritone and his dark, unnerving lyrics. His second, 1998's uncompromising opus Unchained, took home the country album Grammy. The new effort, American III: Solitary Man, is Mr. Cash's highest-charting album in 30 years.

"From a historical perspective, these are significant artists and we're lucky to get to see people like Johnny Cash that were there from the invention of rock 'n' roll," says Mr. Rubin from his Los Angeles office. "This is really the first generation of rock 'n' roll artists growing up. These are the pioneers of the music we listen to today. We are so blessed that we still have them. We should listen close. They could teach us something."

Mr. Cash and Mr. Nelson have become idols to today's rock stars. Look at the company they've kept. Mr. Cash and U2 frontman Bono struck up a friendship that led them to the recording studio. Mr. Cash sang lead vocals and co-wrote "The Wanderer," the last track on U2's 1993 album, Zooropa. On his Solitary Man disc, Mr. Cash offers a chilling cover of U2's "One."

Mr. Nelson, who signed with Island Records after nearly two decades with Columbia, now enjoys carte blanche to pursue any musical style he chooses to explore. His three Island CDs are diverse projects that fit with the legend's free-spirited lifestyle and his love of American roots music.

The braids-and-bandana-wearing Mr. Nelson pays tribute to the blues on the new Milk Cow Blues. Two years ago, the haunting Teatro, produced by Daniel Lanois, who helmed U2's Grammy-winning breakthrough CD, 1987's The Joshua Tree, was folky and ethereal. His Island debut, 1996's Spirit, was similar to Mr. Cash's American Recordings in its stripped-down, sonically spacious quality. Between those releases, Mr. Nelson has played or toured with hot young artists such as Beck and Jonny Lang, the Dixie Chicks and Dwight Yoakam. He's been profiled in Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly.

All of this without a smidgen of mainstream country radio airplay. Mr. Nelson, Mr. Cash, Mr. Jones and Mr. Haggard transcend the rigid world of contemporary country. They had their country chart heyday during a period without radio consultants and label-driven playlists. They became legends on raw talent, not imaging and marketing.

Then, as now, they had something to say. And there's still an audience ready to listen.

That audience isn't much different from the honky-tonk crowd that followed them during their heyday – save for some hard-core rockers who identify with the emotional grit at the center of those bone-rattling country songs. Mr. Jones, Mr. Nelson and Mr. Haggard still trek to about 100 concerts a year. Mr. Cash, who spent most of 1999 in and out of the hospital with everything from pneumonia to a nervous-system disorder, doesn't tour as much anymore, but he did play plenty of gigs promoting his Unchained album.

"They raise the standard for everybody," says Asylum's Ms. Shriver, who handled publicity for Mr. Jones and Mr. Nelson before she became a label president. "It can set a level that I hope people would aspire to. Those four artists are the greatest country artists of all time. Knowing them personally, I know that to not perform would kill them."

When Mr. Haggard takes the Billy Bob's Texas stage Saturday night, he will offer slices of his own existence; the audience will recall some of their own experiences in his vignettes. When that connection is strong, Mr. Haggard is recharged.

"It's electrifying and it's exuberant," he says. "It's like doing dope or something and not having to. It's the frequencies or something going through your body that energizes an old man. I'm sure it affects the people that hear it. People still get excited about it, they still give standing ovations. I can't turn my back on it."

What their current independent-minded record labels have done for Mr. Jones, Mr. Cash, Mr. Nelson and Mr. Haggard is quite simple: They allow them to be themselves, to share their artistic voice – undiluted.

"We still have something to give," says Mr. Haggard. "The most important thing is to have our music go uncensored. Let people hear it and if they don't like, they don't request it and it'll be gone by tomorrow at sundown. If it's no good anyway, it won't be around. But give it all a chance."

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