Haggard, 59, hasn't lost his fight

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's been a good month for Merle Haggard. A few weeks ago, the legendary country songwriter was celebrated with a Grammy lifetime achievement award, and last Tuesday, 10 of his classic 1960s and early '70s albums arrived in stores in richly archival fashion. The man they call Hag could rightly be basking in the attention - but Haggard remains as much iconoclast as he is icon and, like his old anthem, he's never shy about showing the "Fightin' Side of Me."

"That Grammy thing, well, that was sort of squirrelly I thought," Haggard said in a recent interview. "So I didn't go down there to L.A. What is that old saying? 'They promise you everything and deliver as little as they can.' "

Haggard's consternation is due to the fact that after the Recording Academy selection panel's unanimous vote to give him the award, it was decided that it would be bestowed at an off-camera ceremony. That would be followed up with a brief film montage and acknowledgment during the broadcast of the 48th Annual Grammy Awards.

It didn't help to hear that this is common practice these days or that the show's 3 1/2 hours are gobbled up by performances of contemporary hits to help boost ratings. Haggard says he has been through too much in his life to accept half-measures. Without a trace of anger, he asked: "I understand the reasons, but it demotes the honor, doesn't it?"

So now he is waiting for delivery of his gramophone trophy. Meanwhile, he no longer has to await delivery of some of his classic music in the form of the reissues from Capitol Nashville/EMI. The 10 remastered albums from 1965 to 1971 have been bundled into pairs this time, and added to each are comprehensive liner notes and bonus tracks of unreleased and rare material.

Haggard said he has mixed feelings about one of the tracks, "When No Flowers Grow," which has been added to the CD containing the albums Strangers and Swinging Doors & The Bottle Let Me Down.

"It's the saddest song you ever heard in your life," he said. "It's about a lady who accidentally backs her car over her child and she goes crazy. And her husband watches her go out and pick flowers at a time when no flowers grow. Tommy Collins wrote that song. We recorded it and, well, everybody in the studio agreed it just couldn't be released. It was too sad."

It's more about happy endings for Haggard himself. After rough living (including a now-famous prison stint in the 1950s) and a period of career doldrums, Haggard is approaching his 60th birthday in April with vitality. His album Chicago Wind last year received strong reviews, and a new generation of honky-tonk heroes such as Toby Keith has revived Hag's name, singing his praises.

"It's a wonderful thing to live as long as I have and to be appreciated and, well, just to be here for it," Haggard said.

Geoff Boucher is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

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