By Bill DeYoung
Merle Haggard was 62 the last time he and I talked at length. At that time, country music’s greatest singer/songwriter was giving serious thought to packing the job in, hanging his Fender Telecaster on the wall and going fishing for the rest of his life. He’d had some serious health issues, he was tired and, most importantly, he had nothing left to prove.
“I must’ve been crazy when I was talking to you,” Haggard, now 77, laughs when I remind him of the conversation. In the interim, he’s survived heart surgery and a lung cancer scare, but hasn’t played less than 100 shows each and every year. Retiring, he says, “is really something that I probably should never do, because when I do, the next big event I’ll be out of here, you know?”
Haggard’s calling from the country home he shares with his wife Theresa and their kids in California’s Shasta County. Work and constant travel, he believes, keep him going. “I’ve been home right now for over a month, and I’m physically and mentally less than I was when I was on the road,” he says. “So I need to do it.”
It was 1965 when Haggard, the only son of hardworking Dust Bowl Okies living in the Bakersfield region of Southern California, first landed on the national charts with “Swinging Doors.”
Inspired by his heroes, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and “King of Texas Swing” Bob Wills, Haggard wrote and sang direct, personal songs, painted with the electric guitar-heavy honky tonk beat that Bakersfield’s reigning country star, Buck Owens, had made popular.
This music, rougher, rawer and more danceable than the violin-drenched stuff Nashville was churning out at the time, became known as the Bakersfield Sound.
Haggard, a superlative songwriter, quickly surpassed Owens both on the charts and in the hearts and minds of country fans. He wrote candidly about his brief time in prison as a young man (“Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Branded Man”), about the expatriate Okies who fled to California for a better life (“Tulare Dust,” “Hungry Eyes,” “The Farmer’s Daughter”) and about the everyday struggles of the blue-collar (“Workin’ Man Blues,” “Ramblin’ Fever,” “If We Make it Through December”).
Along the way, he became known as “The Poet of the Common Man,” a reputation cemented by a late-1960s pair of pseudo-patriotic hits that started as a joke (“Okie From Muskogee,” which spent four weeks at No. 1, and “The Fightin’ Side of Me”). He made swing, Dixieland and gospel albums, and scored a massive hit with Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” his 1983 duet with Willie Nelson.
Since 1969, he says proudly, he’s never written a pre-show set list. However: “You gotta do the ones they paid their ticket to hear. For example, I’ve got I think 19 songs that are million-play songs, that have been played over a million times in America. I do probably three-quarters of those songs every night.”
Me: “Are there songs in your catalog that, even though you’ve sung them 20 million times, you can’t help but remember where and how you wrote them?”
Haggard: “When you get on the stage … I don’t know about other people, but I think different. When the lights go on, and it’s time to do it, my concentration level goes up and I think about what I’m doing at the moment. And sometimes I could be walking to the stage, and I couldn’t give you even a hint of what I’m gonna do when I hit the stage.
“Usually, what I’m thinking about is: Is this working? Should I change my tactics? What should I do next? While I’m doing the song I’m doing, that’s what my mind is doing. I’m sort of on autopilot as far as the song I’m doing. And I’m trying to think about what I’m gonna do.”
Slowing down is not on Merle Haggard’s to-do list. He has several new recordings in various stages of completion.
“The most interesting thing, probably, is that me and Willie just finished our third album together,” he explains. “Not counting the thing we did with Ray Price. It’s really good; I think it’s the best one we’ve done. I think the title of the album is probably going to be Django & Jimmie, about Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. We didn’t really do any swing, per se, we just did straight-ahead songs that we felt good about.”
The tour that brings Haggard and his band to the Mahaffey Jan. 27 begins four days earlier in Atlanta. He already has dates booked through September.
“I got a good bed on the bus,” he chuckles. “I get used to sleeping on the bus, then I come home and it’s vice versa. It depends on the bus – if you’ve got a good bus, and it rides good. I’ve got a new one coming in about the 1st of June, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s got a new suspension on it and all that. You can hear the bumps, but you can’t feel ‘em.”
He can, he says, “sleep through a tornado.”
This is a living legend who takes his job very, very seriously.
Me: “Are you one of those guys who thinks he’ll just drop while onstage one day? Or do you think that when your energy flags, you might just quit doing it?”
Haggard: “Well, I always hope that I’ll just kinda go in my sleep.” (He laughs). “Kinda slip away, you know?”
Tuesday, Jan. 27 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets, $39.50-$69.50, available here