When Marty Haggard was young he was his father’s shadow, in the recording studio, on the road and at performances across the U.S.
He believed then, as he does now, that the music of his father, Merle Haggard, was as good as music gets. As he grew he too became a singer songwriter and earned his own accolades in the business, receiving a nomination for best new male vocalist in 1986 for the single, Trains Make Me Lonesome.
But along the way, music changed. The older, country sound his father helped craft stepped aside for progressive, pop-infused beats. The younger Haggard changed too. He loved music but not the music industry.
“I never really enjoyed or cared about being a star,” he said in a phone interview. “Somewhere along the way I grew up and realized I wasn’t enjoying the music business.”
The younger Haggard decided to return to what he loved most, the music of his father. In 2010 he began performing his father’s tunes in a Branson, Missouri based tribute show that ran for two years before heading out on the road.
“I love music and I love him and what I really, really love the most, and this sounds simplistic, is that these people that come to shows grew up with this music like I did. I can see it on their faces, the music is taking these people back to moments of their lives,” Haggard said. “I can see the smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. This is quite the blessing to help people smile and get away from the ritual of life.
“The music is a memory trip for those people just as much as it is for me,” he said.
Haggard said he was there to witness nearly every song his father cut. He realized that he knew amazing stories attached to songs that no one else did.
“Probably some of those stories I should not tell,” he laughs. But he does share stories of his father during each show and even sprinkles in one or two of his own songs.
Haggard said he has never worried about being compared musically to his legendary father.
“The one thing my dad told me about music is to be yourself,” Haggard said. “I am not trying to be my dad or impersonate him. I’m not nothing but who I am.”
Haggard said while many people initially come for the elder Haggard’s music, they return to the show for Marty.
“I’ve developed a little following and that tells me they are no longer here just for Merle Haggard. People come back because they’ve developed a relationship with me,” he said. “The one consistent thing between me and dad is we’re both very honest. He was not phony and people I think appreciate and love honesty.
“I’m just who I am. I’m not trying to be dad or be better or worse than him. I think honesty sells much better than people realize and I wish some politicians would learn that,” Haggard said.
What he is, is long-loved music that crowds are hard pressed to find on recent country charts.
Haggard said all musical genres, not just country, have fallen victim to poor songwriting.
“If I was to complain about one aspect of music relative to older days, the songs now, they suck. They just ain’t got no heart and soul,” Haggard said.
His father wrote about the rough life, the real life he lived, recounting his time in prison for petty crime and becoming a voice for the workingman.
“Songs now are not about life,” Haggard said. “Music these days, the lyrics are what I call candy country. It’s more about what you see on stage as opposed to what you’re listening to. In the old days it was about the music. These days it’s about tight jeans.
“Right now I don’t find much separation in country and pop or even rock,” Haggard said. “All the musical brands have come together in one big muddled mess. They’ve all lost their understanding of the value of the lyric.”
Still, Haggard said musical trends are just that, trends, and that younger audiences will find their way back to the storytelling, impacting music created by Merle Haggard and his contemporaries.
“My dad told me his audiences were getting younger. He’d look out and see young teenagers. These kids got on the internet and stumbled across his music.
“I think there is a good chance song writing will full circle and come back around,” he said. “Everybody likes good music.”