Merle Haggard’s nearly seven-decade career finds the California native still on the road and in the studio and with a legacy of matchless songwriting and recording highlights ranging from such signature tunes as “Okie From Muskogee” and “Swingin’ Doors” to the truly timeless, like “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Mama Tried.” It’s easy to see why CMT’s poll of 100 country music figures chose to honor Haggard as Artist of a Lifetime. Along with such towering figures as Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, Haggard’s creative output and impact on the art and the industry is immeasurable.
Ironically, since contemporary country radio won’t play legacy artists like Haggard, it means the 77-year-old Bakersfield native “works harder in other ways,” and he’s proud to note “attendance has doubled over the past few years and we’re looking at 100% sold-out shows, and that includes Tuesday night in Podunk with no gambling or anything else going on.”
Haggard does note wryly that his best-known hit, “Okie” has “become an anthem for the pot smokers.” While country fans back in the ’60s might have missed the satirical nature of that tune, marijuana reform is a cause the politically minded Haggard takes seriously.
You could say it’s an issue that puts him very much in tune with many of his younger fans as well as a wide swath of the older ones who ignored that song’s stern admonitions.
“Listening to what people are concerned about gives you a great picture of the divisions in the country,” he tells Variety. “After Ebola and immigration, the marijuana issue is one that separates the Christians from the churches, grandma from grandpa. And it’s something we need to address. It’s illegal to sniff gas but we don’t stop drilling oil. But what we’re up against is the power of the cigarette, alcohol and drug companies.”
Another other subject that engages Haggard is the art form he’s spent his life exploring and perfecting.
From Freddie Hart to Billy Mize, George Jones to Johnny Paycheck, it’s no surprise the encyclopedic knowledge of American music Haggard exhibits on stage makes even a brief chat an invigorating and deeply personal music history lesson.
For instance, one debate among country music fans is whether Jones influenced Paycheck’s vocal style or vice versa. “I think it’s a little of both,” he offers, “but I do know I was influenced by George and I influenced George a little bit. When I did that low note on ‘I Threw Away the Rose,’ George heard it and charted a jet and came and joined me on a tour. And he started to use it. He told me, ‘That low note just changed my f—kin’ life.’ ”
Another legend whom Haggard toured with, Bob Dylan, elicits a strong response.
“Bob is real,” he says. “That guy you see onstage is the same guy offstage. He’s a recluse. But he just wants to be himself, so sometimes that means he doesn’t want to be around anybody.
“But Bob Dylan writes every day, all the time. And when he’s not writing, he works his band’s f–kin’ asses off, from 1 to 5 every day.”
Given Haggard’s own penchant for privacy and his reputation for not suffering fools gladly, did Dylan’s attitude cause any problems between them on the road?
“He’s probably our greatest living songwriter and he’s one of my favorite writers,” he opines. “And you know, the truth is, neither of us are the kind of guys who do a lot of rice-throwing.”
But on Dec. 2 in Nashville, there will be a lot of rice-throwing, much of it on Haggard’s behalf. One suspects he’ll take it in stride, just as he accepts country radio’s blackout and the confines of the tour bus that will take him to Podunk tomorrow and beyond.