Merle Haggard Still Going Strong on ‘I Am What I Am’
Ask just about any young country artist on the scene today to name their influences, and they are quick to acknowledge the artistry of Merle Haggard. The 73-year-old icon demonstrates he's still the master on 'I Am What I Am,' his first album on Vanguard Records.
During our lengthy and colorful conversation, Merle shared his thoughts on America today, plans to record with his wife, his pride in his teenage son and an update on his health.
Uppermost in his thoughts was 'I Am What I Am,' which hits stores this week. "We had this project finished. We presented it to them and they liked it very much," Merle tells the Boot of his new association with Vanguard. "We're still out here trying to make something new and come up with something different just like we've always did."
The 12-song collection was recorded in Northern California at Merle's Shade Tree Manor studio. "I record as I write," he says. "If I write something good, I'll go record it. I got the studio here and I got the band here, so when something good comes to my heart, we'll go put it down."
Merle recorded with his longtime band, the Strangers, as well as guest musicians such as Reggie Young, Rob Ickes and Bob Dylan's drummer, George Receli. "I just finished working with Rob Ickes on a bluegrass record that I did that was No. 1 for four weeks," Merle says, "and I finished working a couple of years out on the road with Bob Dylan and me and his drummer struck up a friendship. I like the way he drums. He's a musical drummer. We've always brought in the best people that we knew about."
Even with the special guests, the Strangers remain the foundation. "It's a wonderful thing to have a band like this. I've had half the band since 1965," says Merle, who can't imagine parting ways. "It would be like getting a divorce. We're here for the long haul and going all the way to the grave with them."
'I Am What I Am' covers a variety of topics, from the excitement of new love on 'Pretty When It's New' to the confessional title track. He and his wife, Theresa, duet on 'Live and Love Always.' 'Oil Tanker Train' finds Merle reminiscing on his childhood. "Every day that big old train would come rumbling by and interrupt whatever you were doing and it felt like an earthquake of 7.2," he says. "It rattled by every day and the steam engines were still in service at that time so the big old choo choo came by loaded with crude oil and it did it for 100 years. We just got done celebrating Oildale's Centennial birthday. [There was] a black stream of oil coming out of that oil field down there since 1909 and two railroads were involved pulling that oil out of there. It's just insane that nobody has ever written about it. It's really a famous train."
'I've Seen It All Go Away' is a no-holds-barred look at the changes in American culture, from politics to the demise of small town America. "Every town looks just like the town that you [saw when you] got off on the last off ramp. When I started traveling on the road, there were two lane highways. We watched them build the entire interstate internet of highways. Now it's the same old thing off of every exit--the Wendy Burger and the Subway and that's irritating."
Over the years, Merle has witnessed other things he finds disappointing including "the overall decline of patriotism, the whittling away at the constitution and I think the lack of pride. There's graffiti written on the side of railroad trains. No respect seems to exist anymore. I know people care about America and care about the times and those people should stand up and do things that influence others."
'How Did You Find Me Here' is a song about finding that special love that changes your life. "When you find your love you wonder how could that possibly have occurred. It's really as amazing as the birth of a child because it requires more than one person to make it happen," he says philosophically. "At the time that I met my wife, I was ready to pull out on a houseboat and stay out there in some cove and become a recluse. She really found me in a hole. Theresa has made my life better.
"It's also about both of us finding God," he continues. "We've both become adamant followers of the Bible. We study the King James version of the Bible, and that's what we do in our passtime because we enjoy it, but that's nobody's business and has nothing to do with me as a country artist other than the fact that that's what I do and who I am. It's great to be where I'm at in life by having the ability to still sing and use the voice He gave me."
Merle is grateful to be healthy and making music after a bout with cancer in November 2008. "I had an upper part of my right lung removed. I had a cancer in there, but they got it," he explains. "It stayed in that one place and they didn't have to give me that chemo or none of that crap. I was up and singing again in two months and on the road."
Merle admits he initially went for follow up, but hasn't seen a doctor recently. "I went back two and a half months after my surgery and they took x-rays and they did were astounded with everything they saw. There was no sign of anything. I probably should have went back, but I haven't back yet. It's 14 months into it. I'm 73 and 72 is the life expectancy, so I'm just going to stay away from doctors. As long as I feel good and I ain't got no pain, I'm not going to be taking no pain pill. I feel good at the present time and that's the way I'm going to leave it. I'm staying away from the doctors."
When asked what he does these days for fun, Merle says, "I used to be a really good golfer and really good bass fisherman, I don't do much of either one anymore. I kind of talk a good game."
He and Theresa are working on an album together. "It's our tribute to Johnny and June. That's what we're making right now," he says.
One might say that Merle is overdue for a "Man in Black" tribute of some sort -- in country circles, the famous story goes that Johnny Cash inspired a troubled young Merle Haggard during his stint in San Quentin state prison. Merle, who spent much of his youth flaunting a reckless disregard for the law, eventually landed in San Quentin for robbing a tavern in 1957. He was supposedly inspired to clean up his act and pursue a music career after attending three of Johnny's legendary prison performances, a remarkable story they would go on to acknowledge on stage together years later. Now, over half a decade down the road, a musical dedication to Johnny and June would be an appropriate and touching tribute.
Merle also plans to record with Loretta Lynn. "I'm kind of waiting for her to call me and tell me which way to jump," he laughs.
He's also been busy touring, and recently contacted noted clothing designer Manuel to create some new stage clothes. "He sent me five coats to look at and all of them were those little short things and I told him, 'Look, I want a full size Hank Williams kind of a coat. I don't have a pretty ass, cover up my ass.'"
Proving the apple doesn't fall far from the tree musically, Merle's son, Ben, has been performing with dad's band and is starting to create quite a buzz. "Everybody is kind of scratching their head. He's playing like a great guitar player that's been around for 40 years. He's playing better than his dad and he's 17-years-old," Merle says proudly. "He's going to graduate from high school on June 4th and he's kept his grades up. He don't smoke and he's just a model citizen. He's got more wisdom than anybody in this family and he's got us all so proud that we don't what to do. We're afraid to breathe. We're afraid the bubble will burst."
He's equally proud of daughter Jenessa. "She is graduating from college this year and she's going to be 21," says Merle, who also has four older offspring from earlier marriages. "She's doing whatever she wants to do. She's got job offers all over the town when people can't hardly get jobs. So I'm just really happy with my little family here, couldn't say more about them."