Merle Haggard, the country music legend, died Wednesday, April 6, on his 79th birthday. About 10 years ago, Tribune reporter Sarah Linn interviewed him as he prepared to come to town for a concert at the Pozo Saloon. Here’s the article, originally published Oct. 5, 2006.
• • •
Here’s Merle Haggard’s contribution to world peace: Have the Bush-bashing Dixie Chicks and “Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue” singer Toby Keith stop fighting and go back to making music.
“It’d be bigger than Woodstock if Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith buried the hatchet up there in upstate New York,” he says with a short, phlegm-rattling laugh. “Let’s give the world an example of what Americans are really like and agree to disagree.”
Haggard’s tone seems gentle — at least, as gentle as a man with his dark, restless streak can be. Could it be that life on his Lake Shasta homestead is starting to mellow one of country music’s best-known outlaws?
“I’ve got a couple of children and a beautiful wife to start with ... Those are the most important things in my life, “ says Haggard, who performs Sunday at the Pozo Saloon. “The rest is just trivial B.S.”
At age 69, Haggard’s baritone is as strong and smooth as the day he first crooned “Mama Tried.” He’s recorded about 80 albums, including 2005’s Chicago Wind” and “Kicking Out the Footlights ... Again,” a collaboration with George Jones that hits stores later this month.
In February, the Recording Academy gave the man known as “Hag” a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, following his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame a dozen years ago and more than 20 other honors.
“They’ve been trying to put me out to pasture since 1989, but I refuse to go,” Haggard says with a chuckle.
Creston country singer Monte Mills says Haggard’s voice and songs have always struck a chord in him — so much so that Mills owns nearly all Haggard’s albums.
“He’s just such an incredible force in country music,” says Mills, whose Lucky Horseshoe Band opens for Haggard on Sunday. “They say quality never goes out of the style. I think that’s why he’s been able to hold on for so long.”
Born to Dust Bowl-era immigrants from Oklahoma, Haggard spent his early years living in a converted refrigerator car in Oildale near Bakersfield. His father died when Merle was 9, and the boy whose rebellion inspired “Mama Tried” started stirring up trouble.
“I was a rotten kid,” Haggard says.
After spending time in reform school, Haggard embarked on a music career with the help of honky-tonk icon Lefty Frizzell. But money troubles caught up with him and he was arrested for armed robbery just before his 21st birthday.
It was while serving prison time at San Quentin that Haggard came face to face with his future friend and collaborator, Johnny Cash.
Haggard admits he wasn’t much of a Cash fan before. But when he watched Cash perform for eight hours that New Year’s Day in 1959 — after losing his voice partying the night before — Haggard says, it didn’t matter.
“Johnny Cash walked out there able to put that prison in the palm of his hand and I saw him do it,” Haggard says. “I have never seen anybody before or since that had that much charisma who wasn’t president of the United States.”
Inspired by Cash and the advice of death row inmate and author Caryl Chessman, Haggard pulled his act together.
In just a few years, he went from playing in the prison band to performing and recording what came to be known as the Bakersfield sound. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan pardoned him in 1972.
“(Cash) one time told me, ‘You’re everything people think that I am. You’ve been to prison and actually experienced what people think I am,’ ” Haggard recalls.
Even now, decades from a jail cell, it’s Hag’s rough, raucous streak that continues to ruffle feathers.
He’s fiercely proud of the United States and the troops overseas, yet his voice starts a slow angry burn whenever he talks about Hurricane Katrina’s disastrous aftermath, homeland security or the escalating arms race he feels is leading to World War III.
Haggard cites his frustration with the handling of the Iraq War as one of the reasons he’s dropped “nearly all the political stuff” from his ad-lib show.
“I suddenly turned my back on it because I do not believe in the politics of America, “ the country star says. “I believe they’re corrupt and I believe there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.”
Haggard’s songs, as much as he would hate to admit it, have always been political — from the redneck anthem “Okie from Muskogee” to “Politically Uncorrect,” the patriotic duet with Gretchen Wilson that hit radio waves this year.
Haggard describes “Okie, “ which praises a place where “We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse” as a time capsule showing the ignorance of a troubled nation.
“Nobody knew what the Vietnam War was about, “ Haggard says. “Everybody thought that marijuana was the reason that kids were walking around with their mouths open and people were just really uninformed.”
“It’s a milestone of the mentality of a great part of America, “ he adds.
Mention “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” however, and Haggard’s voice fills with pride over his family’s tradition of military service. His own grandson, U. S. Army Sgt. Jarrod Stevens, recently received a Purple Heart after 14 months in Iraq.
That experience inspired “Where’s All The Freedom,” a song off of “Chicago Wind.” In it, he notes rising gas prices, police presence and the court battle over the Ten Commandments, lamenting, “Our country is like a prisoner of war/ Where’s all the freedom that we’re fightin’ for?”
Haggard’s mixed views on Iraq may explain his attitude toward the Dixie Chicks, who alienated conservative fans after singer Natalie Maines spoke out against President George W. Bush on the eve of the Iraq invasion.
“Somehow or another it didn’t offend me because I thought, ‘What’s new about grandma not liking the war? Or, for that matter, granddaughters?’” Haggard says. “Women are just not known to be in favor of beating somebody up.”
Although he tried to broker a reconciliation with friend Toby Keith — who famously penned a post-Sept. 11 threat to America’s enemies — Haggard says the effort hasn’t worked yet.
As for Hag, his own life remains in flux.
He’s in the midst of a nine-city tour — “I’ve got to keep touring or otherwise I’ll die,” he quips — and working on a book about his relationship with Bakersfield country legend Buck Owens and Haggard’s ex-wife Bonnie Owens, who both died in spring. Bonnie Owens had once been married to Buck.
“I’d like to live it all again, the good times with the bad,” Haggard says. “The only thing is, I’d take more advantage of the time I wasted. If I could do anything different, I’d just go back and use some of that wasted time.”