When word got out yesterday that irreverent, influential country singer Merle Haggard had died, we knew there was only one way for the Village Voice to remember him: Nat Hentoff’s on-the-bus profile from our July 2, 1980 issue.
When Hentoff sat down with Haggard, the songwriter was on tour to support The Way I Am, both enjoying and struggling with his ongoing fame. The piece is a thoughtful portrait of a man who’d been in love with country music since childhood but had grown frustrated by what he saw as the corrupting influence of industry money and its interest in a sleek, radio-friendly sound with, as he puts it, “no soul.” To Haggard, country was a white answer to the blues, rooted in working-class experiences, with much better musicianship — “[producers] made the twang of country singers sound a lot more pronounced,” he says —than the genre got credit for.
Haggard was a divisive star but, as Hentoff shows, it was only because he was a profoundly honest man who just wanted to play his guitar and sing his truth. It doesn’t get much more country than that.