In case country music fans have doubts about whether Ben Haggard is all-in on this music-business thing, consider this ultimate indication: He’s looking for a house in Nashville.
Merle Haggard’s youngest son is following in the footsteps of his late hall-of-fame father. Except for the Nashville part. Merle was a West Coast guy who never completely buried his disdain for Music City.
Ben Haggard, content to be Merle’s Fender Telecaster-wielding sideman the past few years, is front and center now, six months after the April 6 death of his father, on the legend’s 79th birthday.
“A lot has happened since my father passed away, both good and bad,” Ben said, speaking by phone recently from the city he’s apparently prepared to call home.
“This is our second trip back here looking around,” he said, indicating that the new place will be somewhere outside the city, far from those homes-of-the-stars bus tours. Not that he’s that caliber of A-lister yet, two months shy of 24.
He doesn’t even have a record contract, though he has signed on with BMI, the agency that helps songwriters, composers and publishers get paid for their music.
More on that record deal in a minute.
Haggard didn’t have a lot of time to really prepare himself for the post-Merle world. The elder Haggard had some tour dates on the calendar at the time of his death and he wanted those obligations fulfilled by the band, Ben and his middle son, Noel Haggard, 53.
So life’s pace has increased.
“This has been a transition period in my life,” Ben said. “It’s changed dramatically. It’s brought me out of the wings and brought me closer to the mic.”
Indeed, the youngest of Haggard’s six kids was initially averse to vocalizing on stage.
“I didn’t know he could sing until I saw him on YouTube,” said Marty Stuart, who, with his rockabilly-infused honky-tonk band, the Fabulous Superlatives, will headline the show that brings Ben, Noel and the somewhat reconstituted Strangers to Bakersfield’s Fox Theater on Thursday.
“Until then I thought he could barely talk,” Stuart said, presumably joking. “Merle said, ‘He can sing if he wants to,’ and I guess he finally wants to.”
Stuart knows a little about shyness around the microphone; he once told writer Paul Kingsbury he avoided singing early in his career until it became unavoidable. Sound familiar, Ben?
“It was a fear I had to face,” Ben said. “My father told me, in the last days of his life, ‘You gotta grow up a little here pretty soon. I’ve got some tour dates you’ve got to fill.’ That was definitely my wakeup call.
“But by no means am I trying to be him. I’m just trying to honor what he’s done. My singing — it’s progressed over the last few months more than ever, more than all the previous years combined.”
His father’s struggle awakened something else in him, too — the sensitivity of a songwriter who seeks self-honesty.
“Watching him suffer through that at the end was pretty tough,” he said, referring to his father’s double pneumonia, “but it brought out some things I didn’t know I could write about.
“The songwriting part of my life and career has gone up” in quality and poignancy, he added.
Eldest brother Marty Haggard is off “doing his own thing, having some success being Marty,” Haggard said. But, “Me and Noelly, we’ve always been right there together.”
They share a burden Noel recently expressed to this writer: “It’s hard being Merle Haggard’s son.”
“I sure understand that,” Ben Haggard said. “You’ve got the expectations of millions of fans. They look to his sons for something to grasp onto after he’s gone. There’s pressure day to day. He kicked so high on the wall.
“We can make it different, though. That’s a lot what Noelly was saying. The pressure to be as great as he was is strong.”
The youngest Haggard has had to come at it from a different angle. His father was never destitute growing up, although there were challenging times after Merle’s father, James Haggard, suffered a fatal stroke. The kids from Haggard’s first marriage — Marty, Noel, Dana and Kelly — weren’t poor either, but neither did they have the proverbial silver spoons. Ben, however, never wanted for much of anything, although he said his father was keenly aware of what abundant riches could do to a boy’s head.
“I grew up in a very different set of circumstances,” Ben said. “I think he had a game plan for me, though. He put us in a normal house, a great piece of property (in Shasta County), but no mansion.”
The natural question, then, is whether Ben got the proper infusion of hard times we like to think is required of writers of traditional country.
“I don’t have that poverty to draw from like a lot of songwriters do, but there are dark sides of everybody’s life,” he said. “Divorce, addictions within families, hard times of different kinds. There’s a lot of things that you can tap into. There’s a lot of different wells of inspiration you can dip down and get.”
And when he reaches down and gets it, he’s got a pretty good band to help him play it.
Among them are Scott Joss (guitar, mandolin, fiddle), Jim Christie (drums) and Taras Prodaniuk (bass).
“I blame that on my dad — he found them, former bandmates of Dwight Yoakam’s. Scotty was the one who kind of mentioned these other guys,” Ben said.
And then of course there’s steel guitar player Norman Hamlet, who joined the original Strangers in 1967.
“This band he’s got is phenomenal,” Stuart said of the team of performers Ben inherited from his father. “It’s like Count Basie’s orchestra. Tight.”
And Ben is in charge, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
“When I first came into the band, I was asking Norm Hamlet what to do,” Ben said. “I had to put up or shut up and play guitar. I tried to do it good, and that was it.
“Now I’ve got people looking at me. Here was Norm Hamlet, asking me what I wanted him to do. I said, ‘Well Norm, you’re the boss. You tell me.’ I look at him as the band leader.”
That can’t really last long, though, and Ben Haggard knows it.
“It’s weird being in the spotlight, where you gotta call all the shots,” he said. “You’re front and center. I gotta learn how to talk to the crowd. I gotta learn how to write checks. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever enjoy.”
It’s coming along — at times slowly. He’s booking some one-offs and a record deal remains elusive, although Ben heard enough about record companies from his father to build up some healthy skepticism.
“I am unsigned and I’m not sure I want to sign,” he said. “I want to have full control and they’re not inclined to give you full control. I don’t want people telling me how to dress and how to wear my hair.”
But wouldn’t it be nice for Ben to have some hit records like his father?
“That was a beautiful time with Capitol when they put out some monster hits with (hall-of-fame producer) Ken Nelson, but the recording industry has changed. It’s changed just since I’ve been on this earth.”
So maybe, amid all this change, it’s best that young Ben Haggard take things a step at a time, a show at a time. He’s got the old, consummate professional on one side of him, his supportive baritone brother on the other and a fine veteran band behind him. We have to like his chances.