Merle Haggard Speaks His Mind
Merle Haggard is a man in a hurry. Even though he built a legendary career from almost unimaginably harsh beginnings — living in a boxcar at age nine after his father died and an early life of crime that ultimately found him facing decades in prison — he still has plenty he wants to do before his time is up. Although Merle recently beat cancer, battled a respiratory ailment, and will receive a Kennedy Center honor in recognition of lifetime career achievement, it’s easy to see the 73-year old country icon shows no signs of slowing down. He’s released a new album, is planning a tour and is also looking ahead to perhaps recording a “first-class” album with Willie Nelson and maybe even touring again with Willie and Ray Price.
The new album, ‘I Am What I Am,’ is the Hag’s debut for Vanguard Records and perhaps the most personal album that he’s ever recorded, filled with songs that reflect his life. There’s his favorite track on the album, ‘Oil Tanker Train,’ about growing up in Bakersfield, Calif. ‘Stranger in the City’ is about his infamously wild days, and ‘How Did You Find Me Here’ reflects his calmer life now.
Even though Merle says he’s not as hard charging as he once was, he is still as unapologetically outspoken. He opens up to The Boot about his life, today’s country music and even politics in this exclusive, candid chat.
Tell us about the songwriting session with your wife, Theresa, that culminated in the song ‘How Did You Find Me Here.’ What was the inspiration behind it?
I am an old guy with this young beautiful wife and family. That’s what it’s about. Just thinking about it and how [great my life] is inspired it.
How did you begin collaborating with her? Not many couples can really work together.
Anybody who lives with me is going to be collaborating with me. She is a really sharp person and has become a very good writer over the years. I take advantage of her mind [and her interest] and have taught her what I learned about songwriting over the years. She has become a terrific co-writer.
Congratulations on 17 years of marriage! What’s your secret?
When you fight, make up and just go on. That’s what we do.
In the song ‘I Am What I Am,’ you have a line that says, “I’m no longer a fugitive.” I’m guessing that was inspired by feeling that you always have to explain your past even though that’s been behind you for decades.
That’s exactly what it is. I think, “How many years must I love ’til I get past my early life? That was all a long time ago.” When I do interviews, it’s one of the high points for everyone to talk about, though. They’re just trying to find out about prison and all that. They don’t say that, of course.
Another great song on the album is ‘I’ve Seen It Go Away.’ Is there one thing that you’ve seen go away in the music industry or elsewhere that you wish would come back?
[Consider the Muslims]. Think about the necessary changes people say we need to make so we can get along with them. I find that appalling. They are coming here, so I think it is necessary they get along with us. Why do we have to make special changes for them? They knocked the [World Trade Center] towers down. The Italians didn’t knock the buildings down. The Mexicans didn’t do that. Why should [Muslims] be treated well when they did that to us? [Building the mosque near Ground Zero] is not the right thing to do. People lost their lives there and they were murdered by Islamic people. These people should have to pay for it forever. They have done something that is unforgivable. If I’m a racist because I don’t think it’s right to [build the mosque], then so be it. I find it unacceptable what they are proposing.
You’ve spoken extensively about seeing Johnny Cash perform when you were a prisoner in San Quentin and how that influenced you musically. How did it influence you personally?
I was overwhelmed by his ability to just come out and grab a crowd, just on his own. When I saw him [one time] he had virtually nothing because he had lost his voice the night before, but he was able to come out a few hours later on stage. Here was a guy in front of these convicts who did not have to be nice. He was and he was able to come out and capture them, hold them in the palm of his hand, without even having a voice. I learned so much that day that was valuable..
Different people define outlaw country artists different ways. How do you define an outlaw country artist?
Outlaw country artists are people like Willie Nelson who write music their way and not because of some special grooming. Johnny Cash wasn’t made in a grooming school and the next Johnny Cash won’t be found that way. The writers now pick about two guys at a time and [work with them] and come back with a song at five that evening. That is the way they like to see [country stars made]. Sometimes it works. But I don’t think they found Elvis Presley that way and I don’t think Hank Williams was found that way. Hank didn’t do it that way at all.
Do you see anyone else carrying on the outlaw country tradition?
There are a couple young guys who want to. They’re really trying. Joe Nichols, he is sure trying to and there are a lot of guys that are different enough that they make their own music. You can tell it. There’s got to be somebody in the corning fixing to spring out and save the day. That’s what I’m hoping for.
I’ve heard that you don’t listen to contemporary country radio. Is that true?
I never listened to radio much over the past 50 years. I’ve been busy making music.
I read an interview where you said you still think about hopping freight trains and wish you could do that. Yet, here you are doing the opposite, recording music and performing. What keeps you going?
A big tax bill.
As you look back at your history in the music business, was there a decision made by a music-industry insider that you knew would be a mistake?
There was a guy who told me ‘Kern River‘ wouldn’t work. He said no one knew what Kern River was. It not only went to be a hit but it went on to be a classic. [laughs].
You’ve recorded more than 60 albums in 73 years. If someone wanted to learn the music of Merle Haggard but could only afford to buy one album, which would you recommend?
My latest one … because I need the money!