Story By Lisa Millegan Modesto Bee
Merle Haggard isn’t the only one in his family to have musical talent.
When the 72-year-old country music legend returns to the Gallo Center for the Arts on Sunday, his youngest son will perform with his band the Strangers.
Haggard said 17-year-old Benion is a genius on the guitar.
“You can’t play lead guitar with Merle Haggard unless you’re pretty good,” Haggard said in a phone interview from his home near Lake Shasta. “He’s doing it. It’s not because he’s my son, it’s because he’s good.”
Haggard last performed at the Gallo Center in March 2008. As usual, he’ll play a mix of his 1960s and ’70s hits like the anti-hippie ode “Okie From Muskogee,” the patriotic “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Mama Tried,” along with newer works.
“We do a completely ad-libbed show,” he said. “We get on the stage with all the hits we’ve had, new songs and different style. We have swing tunes, country tunes, pop tunes and the whole variety of music we bring to the stage. We do it from the cuff, we don’t plan it. Sometimes, it comes out really good.”
Haggard has racked up 40 No. 1 chart hits, 19 Academy of Country Music awards, seven Country Music Association wins (plus 43 nominations, the most of any artist) and two Grammys. He is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Born in Bakersfield, he had a rough early life, going in and out of juvenile detention centers and frequently running away (sometimes to Modesto). In the late 1950s, he was sentenced to prison for attempting to rob a restaurant, and ultimately ended up at San Quentin.
After he was released in 1960, he performed in Bakersfield clubs and broke into country music big time.
These days, he’s working on a new album for Vanguard Records that will come out in May. It won’t be filled with the pointed political messages Haggard is known for, however.
“We steered away from the politics and went back to writing about our own life,” he said. “We find our own life is more like other people’s than most people in Washington.”
He said the songs reflect his feelings about parenthood and growing older. One song is called “Down at the End of the Road” and is about building a family and seeing children get older and leave.
But Haggard is not averse to sharing his views about President Barack Obama when asked.
“I don’t care for the majority of the people he’s picked,” the singer said. “I don’t see a lot of intelligence around him. I’m worried about him. His numbers have gone down. He hasn’t produced anything he promised yet.”
Overall, Haggard said he’s feeling good. He and his wife, Theresa, just celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary with a private party. His health is fine.
In November 2008, he had surgery to remove part of his lung because of cancer. But he said he feels good now and “95 percent” of his health has returned.
“We got lucky,” he said. “It was just in one place. It didn’t spread. I didn’t have to do any chemo. I feel special that I was able to recover from lung cancer. Not many people do that. All I know is I’m still here for some reason and I do feel good.”