They don’t make ‘em like Merle Haggard anymore. He’s a real-deal country music star from the old school, hailing from an age when America was, let’s face it, a better place to live, and country music was still awesome. The man literally grew up in a boxcar (converted into a home in Bakersfield, California) and spent his youth hopping freight trains with hobos, rebelling against authority and getting into a whole mess of trouble. Upon discovering his musical ability, he became one of the major players in the creation of the resilient, rough-around-the-edges “Bakersfield sound,” a response to the polished, slick recordings coming out of Nashville in the 1950s and ‘60s.
And he’s still at it — just the music though, not the trouble.
“I still write,” says Haggard, who spoke to the Advocate by phone from his Northern California home. “I’m an impulse writer. I don’t prepare and sit down and write a song. I might go a year, and then write five songs in one day. It’s still my favorite hobby.”
He recently turned 75, and is back on the road following a bout with pneumonia on his last tour that had him sidelined in the hospital for 10 days.
“I want people to know that I’m alright and prepared for a show,” he says.
Haggard is famously known as the most outlaw of all “outlaw” country singers, having spent seven years of his youth incarcerated, and escaping a staggering 17 times. Johnny Cash credited him with living the life that Cash could only sing about. In fact, when Cash first played San Quentin State Prison in 1958, Haggard witnessed the show — as an inmate.
“I was highly impressed with the impression that he left on the audience,” says Haggard. “He got there and he was exhausted and he didn’t have a voice, but still yet he was able to capture the audience and leave a hero.”
Haggard’s petty crimes and minor burglaries probably didn’t warrant the harsh sentence he received at San Quentin (he spent three years there), but as a chronic escapee, his leash would get shorter with each return visit to the penal system.
“It was not a great profession,” says Haggard, of his criminal career. “I had the wrong idols I guess. Willie Sutton was an escape artist and I thought he was the king of the hill, and I was just a kid that didn’t want to abide to the rules.”
Cash and Haggard became fast friends a few short years later. Many have covered Haggard’s songs over the years (About 400 artists have covered “Today I Started Loving You Again” alone.) but he gives credit to Cash for recording his current favorite.
“I didn’t hear it until just lately. Someone was playing it for me on their phone, you know, one of them iPhones. They come up and say, ‘Look at this.’ It’s Johnny Cash singing ‘Working Man Blues’… and he sang the shit out of it.”
Haggard is an outspoken and straight-shooting critic of the modern music business, which primarily ignores him now despite his Country Music Hall of Fame membership (on their site, they say that Merle is “with the arguable exception of Hank Williams, the single most inflential singer-songwriter in country music history”). Despite his nostalgia for the way things used to be, he’s rather fond of certain twists of modern culture, like the return to the idea of buying local to support one’s community, and the internet’s effect on his struggling industry.
“It’s brought it back to something like reality,” he says. “When I started in the business it was a business where you had a song and you got it played on the radio, and you sold that record which was a single first. Then if you had two or three of those kind of hits you put ‘em all together into an album and you sold that. It’s kind of come back to that.”
Haggard has been outspoken about his dislike of most current trends in popular music, and with good reason. Much like his friend Johnny Cash in his twilight years, he often fails to get the respect he’s earned from Nashville. It’s an industry that once treated him so well, but it slowly morphed into something wholly unrecognizable that has very little, if anything, to do with the production of authentic, meaningful music.
“The public is the one that suffers,” he says. “The public doesn’t get to hear a potential Johnny Cash or a potential Elvis Presley because they won’t fit into the criteria of the program director in Chicago, or New York, or wherever it may be … I mean, if you step outside the accepted norm, you’re not going to get a record played, so that makes records all out to be a lie and that hurts the listener. It hurts my ears. I don’t know about most people but I like to hear a little variety. I’d like to hear somebody with their own band. I’d like to hear somebody make a pick noise or hear a breath when they sing. And they’ve got all that sucked away in the tape on the floor. I don’t much care for that.”
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