By Steve Weinstein
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Hag prefers a craggy song. Country these days, he opines, is "more like pop music. Everything is perfect. There's not any chance of hearing something breathe. They've sucked everything that's part of the picture out of the picture, and all you have left is perfection. And in my opinion, a lot of it's perfectly bad!" He laughs a sort of wheezy chortle.
Although he has had health issues over the past few years—diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer in 2008, he was back playing live by early 2009, and he is already booked well into 2013. He does get, as he says, "tayrd," but that doesn't slow him down, even though time onstage isn't necessarily a joy.
"I don't get much enjoyment out of my own shows," he admits. "You're not really out there to have fun; you're supposed to be going to work. I try to do the show for the people and give them what they bought the ticket to see. Once or twice doing a show, I'll do something I wanna do, and sometimes they like it. I'm 75 years old. Willie said something to me: 'You might as well be yourself. Somebody might like you.' That's kinda what I do now.
"We don't have a set list," he continues. "I threw away the set list in 1969. I'd get four or five songs into it and didn't agree with the mood of it in the moment. Nothing came off right. So we do an ad-lib show every night. And sometimes it's really good. And sometimes it's terrible. But if there's anything better than a good show, it's a bad one," he says with a guffaw.
Haggard feels his live performances are also helped by a newfound humor that balances out his sometime-irascibility. "I'm funnier than I used to be. Necessity. It's evolution," he says. "The longevity of my career has come about from my experience over the years. I've got a lot of things to say. The music is a big part of it, but when a guy like the Cable Guy, what's his name—Larry—I get 100 grand a night, he gets 250. And he don't have no band. All he does is stand up there and do things that I could do if I wanted to, and probably should do, and have started doing because it's improved our ticket sales."
He's also open to the possibility that, like his great friend and inspiration Johnny Cash, a new path will open late in life. Haggard is near the end of a year-long, million-dollar building project, a recording studio on his 250-acre ranch, and looks forward to laying down music from March to May of next year. As to what exactly he'll record, well, that's up in the air. But he's entertaining all.
"Johnny called me about the time that he done [the cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt"], and I remember part of the conversation. I said, 'I haven't had a hit since '89,' and he said, 'Haggard, I haven't had a hit since '39!' He said, 'I need one.' About that time, producer Rick Rubin showed up on the scene and took him in. There's always hope that something like that will happen for me," Haggard says. "Some producer would come with a song that would fit me as well as that fit John. There's some interest from Rick Rubin, I think, and the only reason I haven't jumped at the chance is lack of material. When a song like 'Hurt' comes along, I just hope I'll be wise enough to recognize it."
Wisdom is something Haggard has earned, often the hard way, and is also quick to impart. Back in the early '90s, he was already telling journalists he felt old. Now, 20 years later, does he see any benefits in aging? He's got a ready answer. "You have to learn to say 'no' in your life. Otherwise, you never do anything you want to do. That would be number one of what I've learned over the years," he concludes. "You gotta say 'no' a lot of times before you say 'yes.'"