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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.”
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.'”