LOS ANGELES, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Merle Haggard has returned to Capitol Records, where he enjoyed his first great success four decades ago -- no longer the fresh, untested artist, but a true country-music icon with a track record of historic proportions and the wear-and-tear that came with achieving it.
Haggard -- whose country hits include "Okie from Muskogee," "If We Make It Through December" and "Ramblin' Fever" -- has just released "Unforgettable," a collection that includes such popular American standards as "Stardust," "As Times Goes By," "Cry Me a River" and the title song. Capitol Records Nashville is planning to release Haggard's upcoming collaboration with legendary producer Jimmy Bowen -- Haggard's first album of new music for Capitol in 25 years.
Haggard's most recent album, 2003's "Haggard Like Never Before," was notable for "That's the News" -- his commentary on media fixation with celebrity and how it undermines coverage of more serious matters, such as the war in Iraq.
Haggard has merged his own label with Capitol, a move he told United Press International he expects will pay off with increased record sales and radio airplay.
"We have a chance to sell more," he said. "They're a worldwide firm. They can reward me with enormous sales if I'm able to get the job done."
As his part of the arrangement, Haggard has agreed to do some more promotion than he typically does.
The choice of songs for "Unforgettable" was based to some degree on a strategy to solve a fundamental problem that was getting in the way of Haggard getting airplay for new tracks in recent years -- the fact that he was often competing with himself. He said radio programmers frequently explained that they were not playing newer songs because they were still playing his older hits.
"That's one of the reasons why I did this pop album," he said, "to make sure that people understand that it's not something that they already have."
Haggard has had some health issues recently. He canceled several dates late in 2003 because of respiratory problems and recently visited the Mayo Clinic for treatment of what he said has been diagnosed as lupus. While he was there, Haggard told UPI he had a brief cancer scare.
"The flag went up on the cancer and they did an internal biopsy on me and found that it was benign," he said.
Haggard said he was relieved to discover why he hadn't been feeling well.
"I'd get to a certain part of the day and I'd just collapse," he said. "I'm a guy with unlimited energy, and all of a sudden I'd have a headache in one part of my head and it would stay there for 20 minutes and then move somewhere else."
Haggard said he and his doctors were mapping out a course of treatment for lupus -- a chronic inflammatory disease in which the immune system loses its ability to distinguish between foreign substances (antigens) and its own cells and tissues and makes antibodies directed against itself. He said he wanted to let his fans know he appreciated their prayers and wishes for recovery -- and said those kinds of health concerns are just part of being 67.
"You can't get away with laying up in the hospital dying of nothing," he said. "When you're Merle Haggard and you have a place to be and a promise to be there, you have to have reasons why you're not."
Part of Haggard's response to his condition has been to change his diet.
"I've just assumed that raw food is a lot better than cooked food," he said. "If I don't mess up and eat half a pie, then I'm all right."
The songs on "Unforgettable" are more a product of Tin Pan Alley than Nashville's fabled Music Row, but Haggard is confident that country fans will be OK with that.
"There will be diehards who don't want to hear me do anything except what I did," he said. "I got one letter that said, 'Oh, my God, you finally betrayed us -- and where is the Merle Haggard that we loved and honored?' But 99.9 percent said they were really blown away with it. They're good songs and we tried to treat them right."
Haggard recently recorded two duets with country superstar Toby Keith -- produced by Bowen, who interrupted his retirement for the occasion. Bowen also agreed to co-produce several tracks on Haggard's upcoming album of new songs.
Bowen said he didn't mind interrupting his retirement for Haggard.
"I just love Haggard," he said. "I'm not really out of retirement, I'm doing this while in retirement."
Haggard, meantime, said he has no intention of retiring.
"Well, you can retire at 55, but retirement never really registered with me," he said. "I think that's the wrong thing to do. You're programming yourself for the grave."
Music writers may refer to artists like Haggard as "icons" and "legends," but Haggard is reluctant to talk in such terms.
"I think that's something that the person never finds out about," he said. "Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to Ray Charles, and then he died and everybody said, 'My God, we lost the greatest.' And they're right -- we had."
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