Merle Haggard

The original maverick

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By Gary Graff  

By any measure Merle Haggard is a country music legend. But he's also a maverick in the field. Hag, as his friends know him, certainly sings about his share of drinkin' and cheatin', but he's also broken convention by singing directly about politics -- his biggest hit, 1969's "Okie From Muskogee," was a flag-waving response to the anti-Vietnam War movement -- and by incorporating elements of folk, blues, jazz and other styles into his music.

Of course, had it not been for music Haggard figures he'd probably be in jail -- or dead. The first native Californian in the Country Music Hall of Fame, he was born in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, where his parents had moved during the Great Depression. His father, James, died when Haggard was nine, though not before inspiring his son with his love of music, and teaching him the basics of the fiddle.

Despite a miscreant youth in and out of juvenile detention centers, Haggard learned guitar and made his first public performance in 1951, eventually meeting mentor Lefty Frizell and landing a gig on a local TV show called Chuck Wagon. After spending three years in jail following a 1957 burglary conviction, Haggard resumed his career and notched his first Top 20 country hit in early 1964, with a version of Wynn Stewart's "Sing A Sad Song." It began a parade of singles that included "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," "Swinging Doors," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "The Fugitive" (his first No. 1) and songs for the film Killers Three, in which Haggard made his acting debut.

He enjoyed an incredible string of 37 consecutive Top 10 hits, 23 of which went to No. 1. He also re-assembled Bob Wills' Texas Playboys for one last session in 1974, before Wills' death. Haggard has kept himself active, with adventurous recordings -- 2004's Unforgettable offered his take on the Great American Songbook -- duets with Willie Nelson and Toby Keith, and regular tour dates, including a 2005 stint opening for Bob Dylan.

Q: Your audience seems to have grown in recent years. What accounts for that?

Haggard: We've worked hard to do that. It's not been by accident. We have a new life. We have a past life where we had a lot more airplay and things of that nature, but our ticket sales are very much alive and we sell our little amount and it's growing.

Q: Part of it seems to be that younger listeners are discovering you and your music.

Haggard: The audience is of all ages and colors, and conservatives and liberals, and it's a funny audience. You can see people that take me one way and people that take me another, especially these days with the war and everything, our country's so divided.

Q: After "Okie From Muskogee" you were generally considered to be conservative. Do you see yourself as a voice for one side or the other of the political spectrum?

Haggard: I'm a party of one. I think we're covering all walks of life and both sides of the political picture. I don't belong to any party. If I was a Republican I'd want to be a Democrat, and if I was a Democrat I'd want to be something else. I'm not going to identify with either side. I just go with what the candidate says and how he performs.

Q: Do you ever worry about how your audience is going to react to your political edge?

Haggard: Not really. I do things about touchy subjects, and my audience responds, and I think they enjoy that. I'm not like Jimmy Buffett. He doesn't do anything except "Margaritaville" -- and I'm a great Jimmy Buffett fan. I think Bob (Dylan) and I are in the same boat. I think Bob's a very political man, very deeply involved in America. Just listening to his songs I sense a very, very serious American.

Q: Speaking of Dylan, how did your tour with him come about?

Haggard: It came through the managers. His manager called my manager and said, "Hey, Bob wants you to work this tour with him," and I said "Well, lemme give it some thought" (laughs)...It was an honor to be asked.

Q: Did you know him at all before then?

Haggard: Not at all. He and I had been in the same room a lot and been on the same shows, and we know about each other, but we haven't gotten to be around each other. He's reclusive. He doesn't associate, you know? He's working on music all the time. He's Bob Dylan twenty-four hours a day, I think. He's crawled inside of his craft. He doesn't just walk on stage and become that way for a few minutes. He really is that way.

Q: There's a real musical affinity between the two of you.

Haggard: I think our connection is real clear. Jimmy Rogers and Woody Guthrie influenced both of us. I just took it in one direction, and he took it in another.

Q: You took an interesting direction with Unforgettable, covering all those pop standards. Were you trying to be the Rod Stewart of country music?

Haggard: That's an interesting story. We had that project before (Stewart) did. Ours was delayed because the master (tape) was stolen. We had a person who came on our bus and stole our master and took it and put it on eBay. The FBI came and arrested him and everything, but it took three years to get it out. And during that time Rod Stewart ran out there with his album. It really kinda pissed me off, to tell you the truth, but it wasn't his fault or anything. That's just the way the cards fell.

Q: How was working with Toby Keith?

Haggard: We did a couple things together and got to visit and become friends. He's really a neat person and a really good singer -- just absolutely a good singer, in my opinion.

Q: There was talk about a Lost Highwaymen collaboratioin with you, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Hank Williams, Jr.

Haggard: I've withdrawn myself from that. I'm just not that ambitious at this time in my life. I'm barely having time or the energy to keep up with my own life, and that's like adding another career. I turned it down once before, back in the old days with the other guys (Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson). They came to me twice in the old days and asked me to be a fifth member. I just never had the time.

Q: After all these years, are you still making music for the same reasons?

Haggard: Yeah. That's something I've always been able to be honest about. The music is what it's all about, and everything else is secondary. We enjoy the moments of music on stage and the times with great people. Those are just irreplaceable memories and great events in my life. That's how I look at them. Those are dreams coming true right there on stage. I've had a wonderful career and an interesting life, and I've still got an interesting life going on. I'm just afraid to move too quickly and break the bubble. (laughs)

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.