From the Village Voice Archive: Nat Hentoff on Merle Haggard’s Tour Bus


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.