“I got lucky,” he says, a couple of weeks shy of his 72nd birthday, at his home in the foothills outside of Redding.
Doctors took out a substantial portion of his lungs in November, after an X-ray revealed lung cancer, he says evenly. “They got it out. I’m back to my normal weight. No chemo. No radiation. I got real lucky.”
Within weeks, Haggard was back onstage, taking a two-night shakedown cruise at Buck Owens’ place in Bakersfield. (“I wanted to verify to myself that I could still do it.”) He hit the road again seriously in January and reports all but two of 24 dates around the country sold out, and one of those two “was a Sunday in Mormon country,” he says.
Haggard is sitting in the shade in front of his home. A light breeze jingles the wind chimes hanging from his roof. The spacious ranch house rests on a rise at the north end of the nearly 200 acres he owns outside of town. Mount Lassen hovers over the skyline, and the river that runs through his property rolls along off in the distance over his shoulder. He absent-mindedly scratches the belly of his 14-year-old fox terrier, Mabel.
“She’s been sick two or three days, maybe dying,” he says. “She’s an old dog. She can’t hear.”
Haggard can’t help his thoughts. His childhood friend Dean Holloway, who drove his bus for more than 20 years and co-wrote the Haggard staple “Big City,” died of a heart attack the previous week. The memorial was coming up. Haggard jokes about dying, but dark clouds flicker through his hawk eyes. “Everything’s really working out for me,” he says. “If I can keep my health, my sanity and don’t have a damned stroke.”
As a tribal elder, Haggard has grown even more valuable than the young buck who made all those sleek country hits in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He has aged into a grizzled philosopher with guitar, a spokesman for nothing but his own cranky point of view, one of the last old masters still painting. At some point in his life, Haggard made a decision to become an artist – to make music on his own terms, to hell with the restrictive conventions of the country music world – and, freed to follow his own muse, has produced a series of deep, rich, mature recordings in his later years.
His 2000 album for punk-rock label Anti- Records, “If I Could Only Fly,” is the kind of profound work only an older man could make. He returned to the music of his boyhood – with Frizell’s guitar player along for the ride – on “Roots” the next year. In 2004, he briefly renewed his lifelong association with Capitol Records to cut “Unforgettable,” a fine set of pop standards, done honky-tonk style, that he’d learned working bars at the beginning of his career. “You played hillbilly, you played ‘Stardust,’ ” he says. “You played it for them or you didn’t have the f- job.”
He cut a bluegrass album, gospel albums and recorded with George Jones, Willie Nelson and Ray Price. He’s been making a rock ‘n’ roll album with Bob Dylan’s drummer and red-hot Nashville sidemen in which he extends a middle finger to the country music establishment.
He has even let Kris Kristofferson talk him into doing three dates with just the two of them on acoustic guitars (the first is Wednesday at Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa), although Haggard, who has probably never performed a single song by himself with just an acoustic guitar in public during his entire career, is already thinking about renegotiating Kristofferson’s proposal.
“You’re either going to look stupid or good,” he says, “and you have no one to blame but yourself. That way, at least, you’re not pulling any train when you have the wreck.”
He speaks slowly, carefully choosing his words. He sometimes punctuates his sentences by flashing an impish smile that wreathes his Lincolnesque face in wrinkles. He is wearing a well-worn funky fishing cap, long-sleeved black T-shirt, jeans and ostrich leather cowboy boots, sipping an iced tea his wife, Theresa, brought and puffing a pipe.
Merle Haggard is not the guy his fans probably think he is. He is a thinker, a reader (he is especially fond of Mark Twain), a contrarian. He has a scholarly command of country music history. He is a man without guile. With Merle Haggard, there is only one face, only one story. He never need be asked twice what he is thinking.
It would be wrong to describe his politics as left-wing – he is far too iconoclastic for simple categories – but he has never forgotten growing up poor and consistently sides with the underprivileged. He was an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war. He wrote a song supporting the presidential candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton, a woman he extravagantly admires. He is far from the simple Okie from Bakersfield many presume he is.
“You’d think a guy like me would be prejudiced, but I’m not,” he says.
He believes in UFOs. He thinks the government has a secret project spraying mysterious gases from planes that dehydrate the snowpack. He doesn’t mince words. He is Merle Haggard, and he doesn’t care what you think. He pays detractors no mind. “I rest my case in my mind by realizing that I’m intelligent and they’re stupid,” he says.
A lot of the confusion stems directly from his 1969 hit, “Okie From Muskogee,” a song that drew a line in the sand in troubled times. It made Haggard the favorite country singer of President Richard Nixon and vaulted him into the role of spokesman for the so-called Silent Majority, and Haggard has lived with the song ever since with decidedly mixed feelings. “I must have been dumb as a rock when I wrote this,” he said as he introduced the song at a concert a number of years ago. Back in the ’70s, when the song was still current and he found himself performing within spitting district of the Haight-Ashbury and all the “hippies out in San Francisco” of the song’s lyrics, he practically apologized for the song.
Haggard says his songs have to have humor and that was one joke nobody got. “We don’t make a party of out of lovin,’ ” he sings in the song. “We like holding hands and pitching woo.” Hilarious stuff. He was laughing up his sleeve the whole time. Pitching woo?
These days, he is a well-settled senior citizen with two teenagers by Theresa, a voluptuous blonde, his fifth wife, to whom he has been married more than 20 years. Their son, Ben, is 16 years old, plays guitar in the band and is currently missing in action, off with a girlfriend in Bakersfield. His father sprays a profanity-laced invective about his son’s irresponsibility, but it’s a transparent rant. He is clearly proud of the young man who, his father says, can cast a fishing lure into a teacup and drive the band bus like a champ. His 19-year-old daughter, Jenessa, taking culinary classes at nearby Shasta College, is a lovely young lady who wears a chef’s uniform when she helps her mother lay out lunch on the table in the front yard.
No doubt he was big trouble on two feet in his younger days. It wasn’t that long ago, really, Haggard was a bachelor, in between marriages, running a bass fishing resort on Shasta Lake where he presided over a wet T-shirt contest every Thursday and took a lot of medicine that probably wasn’t all that good for him. Theresa, a wild child who came to a Haggard concert in 1984 with the guitarist and left with the bandleader, tamed him some.
He was always a rebel, a country music star who used his authentic outlaw backstory – long before Waylon and Willie even grew their hair past their collars – to illuminate hits such as “Mama Tried,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” and other stories from life’s other side. He grew up in a Quonset hut with a dirt floor straight out of “The Grapes of Wrath.” He was in and out of prisons in his youth on a variety of chicken-excretion charges, winding up in San Quentin after a stupid, botched holdup of a neighborhood bar. Haggard escaped the scene, but the cops were waiting for him when he got home.
Like a con striving for parole, Haggard hewed close to the rigid conventions of country music for years. At age 33 in 1970, he had no more worlds to conquer in country music. He was named entertainer of the year, had established himself as a dominant creative figure in the field and divided an entire nation with one silly song. He looked over his life and decided to cut his own trail. Beginning with his 1970 album, “Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World,” he resurrected the pioneering Western swing music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and began sorting through country music’s past to find his way into its future. He learned to play fiddle and brought Wills’ almost forgotten music back into the light. When Wills died, he left Haggard his fiddle.
Haggard doesn’t have much interest in today’s music. “We don’t have the enthusiasm in music right now,” he says. “We don’t even have songs you could date a time period by. You’ve got girls singing about beating up their boyfriends. ‘Independence Day.’ I hate that f- song.”
He has a new album ready to roll, but he has been haggling with Wal-Mart over the initial order. “You think it’s accidental that I have a great record?” he says. “I told them ‘I’ve been selling records since you opened your store. One way or another, I’m going to sell 600,000 records a year. All you have to do is put my video on the tube you have in the store and let your employees know the record’s in stock.’ “
He wants to build an A-frame studio in front of his house and start a weekly Webcast he will call “The Workingman’s Show,” taking the title from his early hit “Workin’ Man Blues.” He envisions a nationwide employment bulletin board on the Web site and building a community around a new show every week. He himself doesn’t operate a computer – he says he can point and click – or own a cell phone.
A man who has lived his life riding long-distance on buses, playing one-nighters in bends in the road barely on the map, Haggard sometimes dreams of getting off the bus, maybe performing only at one hotel in Reno, but the road inevitably beckons. “I think I’m always going to have to do that,” he says.
The pending acoustic performance troubles him. He has never performed or recorded that way. Kristofferson is an old hand at solo acoustic performances. He dismisses the latter-era acoustic recordings that Johnny Cash did. “In comparison to the other records, they’re flies on the wall in his career. You can’t compare ‘Ring of Fire’ to that stuff, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ to ‘Hurt.’ “
If Kristofferson envisioned two guys with guitars sitting on stools swapping songs when he first proposed the coming round of joint appearances, Haggard is already backpedaling. He says he wants to bring a fiddler. Because Kristofferson plays guitar and harmonica, he can play harmonica solos over the instrumental passages in his songs, Haggard reasons. It only makes sense that he needs the fiddle player on his songs because he doesn’t play harmonica. He also thinks his son Ben might help out on guitar. He starts thinking the best idea might be to have Kristofferson play harmonica in his band. Theresa rolls her eyes.
“I don’t think he’ll do that,” she says softly.
“He’s adamant about doing it with two guitars, walking onstage together as one act,” Haggard says. “He’s wanting it all together, but I believe that I will debate with him right up to before the show.”
Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard: 8 p.m. Wednesday. Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, Santa Rosa. $49.75-$69.75 ($29.50 standing room). (707) 546-3600, www.wellsfargocenterarts.org.
This article appeared on page R – 17 of the San Francisco Chronicle
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