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Merle Haggard’s song of hope

Merle Haggard’s song of hope

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Story by: Kristi Niemeyer – Lively Times – January 27, 2009


Photo by Pamela Springsteen

One day before the inauguration of Barack Obama, a song titled “Hopes Are High” appeared on the website of country icon Merle Haggard.

We’ve got bad times behind us

And the good times up ahead

Bet your money on the promise land

And the good things that he said

We got a new style with a sincere smile

And a new song to sing along

And we got sunshine and a new guy

And hopes are high …

Although he didn’t vote for Obama, the man who wrote “Okie from Muskogee” stands firmly behind the new president.

“He’s a good man. His heart’s in the right place,” said Haggard in an interview from his home near Redding, Calif. “Everyone wants this guy to succeed. If he doesn’t, we all go down the drain.”

Maybe Haggard, who penned some of the fiercest country anthems of the 1970s (“The Fightin’ Side of Me”), has mellowed at 71. Perhaps he just remembers all too clearly what poverty means.

And most likely, after losing part of a lung to cancer in November, he’s just happy to still be writing and singing songs. “More than one person has had high hopes for me,” he says.

Born in 1937 near Bakersfield and raised in a boxcar, Haggard’s childhood sounds like a Steinbeck story. His parents moved west from Oklahoma during the Great Depression, and when his father died, the nine-year-old boy turned into a rebel, hopping a freight bound for Fresno when he was just 10 years old, and embarking on a path of truancy and petty crime that landed him in jail, reform schools, and finally, San Quentin Penitentiary.

I turned 21 in prison

Doing life without parole …

No one could steer me right

But Mama tried …

Music was “an angel on my shoulder.” His father had played guitar and fiddle at schoolhouse dances and honky-tonks in Oklahoma, riding horseback to the gatherings with his instruments draped over the saddle in pillowcases. But growing up, Haggard says, “my father’s musical background was obscured for me. I only heard about it.”

Although his mother “couldn’t hold a tune in a paper bag,” she was an accomplished writer who was named Oklahoma’s state penmanship champion at age 16. “I got a dose of both of their talents,” says Haggard.

One and only rebel child,

From a family, meek and mild:

My Mama seemed to know what lay in store.

Despite all my Sunday learning,

Towards the bad, I kept on turning.

‘Til Mama couldn’t hold me anymore.

His brother gave him a guitar, and soon, he was playing at local clubs, and even performed for his hero, Lefty Frizzell, when he was just 14.

Although music didn’t save him from a three-year stint in prison, it rescued him when he emerged. Within three years, “Sing a Sad Song” had reached number 19 on Billboard’s country chart and Haggard was on his way.

His first Top Five hit, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” also inspired the name of his band. In a radio poll, the listeners of KUZZ in Bakersfield encouraged Haggard to name his band The Strangers. It stuck, with different members and configurations, for more than 40 years.

Initially, Haggard tried to hide his prison past: “I didn’t want to brag it up – nobody who’s been there does.”

But Johnny Cash – who played at San Quentin when Haggard was an inmate there – “told me, ‘you need to be honest with the folks, so these little sleazy magazines won’t ever be able to use it against you.’”

“He was dead right,” says Haggard. “No one was ever able to throw it in my face.” He was eventually pardoned by Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Cash’s advice about truth-telling continues to resonate with Haggard. “There’s only one way to be, especially this late in the game,” he says. “A person has got to be honest. It’s no fun otherwise.”

I been a workin’ man dang near all my life

I’ll be working long as my two hands are fit to use

I’ll drink my beer in a tavern,

Sing a little bit of these working man blues …

Haggard is considered a maverick, not only for the soul-baring honesty of his lyrics, but also for layering strains of folk, jazz, swing and blues onto a firm country foundation. He disdains much of contemporary country music (“sounds like water to me”).

He’s also remarkably prolific, having recorded close to 70 albums during a career that spans nearly 50 years, and successful, with 40 number-one songs to his credit.

Writing remains essential to him. “There’s a never-ending call and need for material to record – to keep on keepin’ on.”

“Occasionally, I wake up in the morning praying to the Lord to give me a song,” he says. “It’s very important to me to have new song to sing.”

Lyrics are inspired by personal experience and the “topical condition of the world.” Either way, he sees songs as a gift “from the good Lord … At least I’d like to think so. I’d sure hate to think they come from down below.”

Hey, I’m not braggin’ or complainin’,

Just talkin’ to myself man to man.

This ole’ mental fat I’m chewin’ didn’t take alot of doin’.

But I take alot of pride in what I am.

At 71, Haggard continues to find sustenance in music. “I’m still thrilled with every aspect of this business,” he says.

His enthusiasm is undiminished by a recent run-in with lung cancer. When Haggard was first diagnosed last May, “I went into denial,” he says. But the tumor continued to grow, doubling in size until “it was hanging in there like a peach on a tree.”

Doctors removed the upper lobe of his right lung in early November, taking with it both the tumor and tissue affected by a different type of slow-growing cancer. Haggard describes the surgery as “one hell of an experience,” and says he’s “not anywhere near completely healed yet.”

Nonetheless, armed with legendary determination, he was gearing up for a week of recording, followed by a 10-day tour. In addition to his three Montana shows, Haggard had five other concerts scheduled during the first two weeks in February.

His voice, he acknowledges, might be a little rusty from disuse. “It usually takes five or 10 days on stage to bring it back,” he says. “Meantime, there will be some grade of inefficiency. I’ll notice it, but hopefully, the crowd won’t.”

Audiences (which Haggard says seem to be swelling in recent years) can expect Haggard and his band to play a mix of old favorites and new songs. “We do an ad-lib show – we play whatever we feel is right for the moment, to make people laugh, and cry, and get what they came for.”

The result, he says, is well received: “If we don’t get a standing ovation, something’s wrong.”

Daddy Frank played the guitar and the french harp,

Sister played the ringing tambourine …

Audiences will also hear the next generation of Haggards perform. Noel, the youngest son of Merle and his first wife (he’s been married five times), opens the show with some of his own songs.

And Haggard’s youngest son, Ben, age 16, accompanies his brother and plays lead guitar for The Strangers, wielding his father’s 40-pound Stratocaster, while his dad plays acoustic guitar or fiddle.

“He’s knocking everybody out with a touch that surpasses mine,” says Haggard, who is no slouch at the guitar. “At 16, he’s playing like a 40-year-old. I don’t quite get how he’s doing that.”

Haggard, who had Ben and his daughter, Jenessa, in his early 50s with wife Theresa, says this bout of fatherhood “rejuvenated me.” His kids, he adds, “are the pride of my life.”

His encounter with cancer seems to have lent a new urgency to his pursuits. “I don’t want to waste any time. I don’t have a lot of time,” he says. “None of us do.”

“You better get busy and do what you can, while you can,” Haggard advises. “Make good marks as long as possible.”

With a career that’s included performances at the White House, Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden, and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Haggard says he hasn’t missed out on much.

“If the Lord pulled the light switch in the next 10 minutes on me, what a wonderful life I’ve had.”

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