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Nearly 40 years ago, Merle Haggard wrote the poignant holiday tome "If We Make It Through December." This year, however, the title of that "recession anthem" might have a different meaning—a more literal one. "I think everybody has December 21 on the back of their minds and hoping that everybody's wrong," observes Haggard about the Mayan end-times prediction. "I'm trying not to think about it."
But Hag does a lot of thinking. He was only nine when his own father passed away, and now as the patriarch of a large clan, Haggard is keenly aware of his fatherly duties, which inform his thoughts and decisions. "I got a lot of money in the stock market, and I'm trying to figure out whether to sell or wait until the 21st. If something doesn't happen, the stock market has got to go up, and it's got to go down before that. That's what I'm mainly watching, trying to be the head of the family here. I don't want to wake up on December 22 and have done the wrong thing."
The 75-year-old is well-versed in "the wrong thing," though his stint in San Quentin as a teenage roughneck ultimately proved his salvation. Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform, an epiphany that helped him turn his own life around via music. Since 1965, Haggard has put out about 49 albums, and that's not counting repackaging, collaborations with everyone from Willie Nelson to Clint Eastwood to George Jones, and three Christmas albums. He also became great friends with the Man in Black who first inspired him.
Times might have changed, but in many ways, Hag hasn't. A patriot, a poet, and an outlaw who lives in rural Northern California, unlike many country artists, he has penned the majority of his own songs. "I've written about 60 percent of 800 songs. And there are about 350 songs in the archives I haven't released," he says. The tune most closely associated with him—"Okie From Muskogee"—might be his best-known, but it certainly isn't his favorite. "It's caused a lot of problems, you know," he says of the award-winning 1969 song. Lyrics include: "We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy, like the hippies out in San Francisco do/And I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee/A place where even squares can have a ball."
He notes, "A lot of people didn't like me and come to me now and say, 'Over the years, I've become a fan, and I love it,' so it had a strange effect on people." Hailed as a "song for the troops" written in the midst of protests against the Vietnam War, it has been viewed as both a satire and an anthem for those "squares." Hag plays it at every live show, though he's quick to admit "some of the things that I once said I don't agree with. I've matured and studied and found that maybe I was wrong." For one, "Okie" starts with, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," while in the past 30-odd years, Haggard, like compatriot Nelson, has been reasonably open about his personal pot habit.
Indeed, for one of the kings of "outlaw country," he's remarkably self-realized and muses that perhaps the need to write the great song keeps him going. "'Okie From Muskogee,' I knew it was a hit. I didn't know how big," he says. "I had a mentor who helped me in the early years; Fuzzy Owen was my teacher. We wrote that song on Interstate 40 coming through Oklahoma. It was written in about 20 minutes. Fuzzy was driving. I said to him, 'What do you think this thing needs?' I was talking about the lyrics. And he said, 'Hell, it needs to be out.' That was a surprise to me because he was always very critical."
The "outlaw country" pantheon of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson refers as much to their lifestyle as it does to their back-to-basics approach to music and business. "Outlaw country fit me pretty good, 'cause I didn't go for the Nashville thing. Never did," says Haggard, his Southern twang prominent for someone born and raised in California. "We always did it our way. We didn't use the obvious players that were making those great records in Nashville we called 'slick records.' We wanted to be a guy with our own sound, a sound from the West Coast, and we were adamant about that."
Indeed, country songs used to be more regional and place-specific, both in sound and lyrics. Despite his elder statesman status and perspective, Haggard claims, "I don't understand modern country music. I have some friends in it, and it's obviously doing very well, but I don't know of any songs I could whistle. It seems like there oughta be a standard every 10 years, and I haven't heard one of those in 20 years. There's a lot of good words. But it seems like we've run out of melodies."
As for the last great standard? He cites a close friend and collaborator. "I think Kris Kristofferson was the last guy to write songs that I care about. 'Sunday Morning Coming Down,' 'Help Me Make It Through the Night'—I think he must have been the caboose of the great writers."