SACRAMENTO, Calif. — During the course of his long career, Merle Haggard has racked up 38 No. 1 country hits, sung with George, Dolly and Willie, toured with Bob (Dylan, that is), entered the Country Music Hall of Fame, recorded with Toby Keith and publicly defended the Dixie Chicks.
The legendary singer songwriter, now 72, easily could have called it a day on his career after undergoing lung cancer surgery last year. Instead, Haggard hit the stage two months later at Bakersfield’s Crystal Palace, the dinner club and country-music museum built by that other famous singer from Bakersfield, Calif., the late Buck Owens.
Haggard doesn’t buckle under. A fighting spirit informs most of his songs, whether his protagonists are battling their others’ perceptions of them (“Branded Man”), the powers that want to oppress a blue-collar dreamer (“Big City”) or a nation changing too quickly (“Are the Good Times Really Over”).
Engaged and informed, Haggard occasionally communicates with fans via “Hag Editorials” on his Web site, merlehaggard.com. Just before President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Haggard posted lyrics to a new song called “Hopes Are High” (“‘Cause there’s a new day and a brighter day/With a new song to sing along”).
This, from the author of “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Vietnam-era conservative anthems that took on squirrelly longhairs and war protesters.
Haggard never could be pigeonholed. As a young man who had resided in, rather than simply performed at, San Quentin, Haggard looked the part of rabble-rouser itching for a fight or another drink. That is, until he stepped up to a microphone to reveal an emotive baritone inflected by the soft cadences his parents had brought with them from Oklahoma to Oildale, the hardscrabble Bakersfield suburb where Haggard grew up.
Now Haggard’s an older man who could tell you a thing or two about life. But he prefers a humorous approach — on stage and during a telephone interview from his home near Redding.
Punctuating responses with a boisterous laugh, Haggard is affable throughout, interrupting the interview only to shoo the family’s toy fox terrier (“She’s the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen,” Haggard brags about the dog) and say hello to Sacramento on behalf of his wife, Theresa Lane Haggard, who grew up in nearby Elk Grove.
Theresa sings harmonies on Haggard’s latest concert tour. The couple’s 17-year-old son, Benion, backs his father on lead guitar, and Noel Haggard, who is Haggard’s son from his first marriage (there have been five altogether), is one of the opening acts.
Q: First off, how are feeling these days? Have you recovered well from the surgery?
A: I’m doing well. ... I was real lucky. It was a tumor that was suspended from the upper lobe of my right lung, and it wasn’t touching the wall or anything ... so I didn’t have to do chemo or any other therapy.
Q: Did the surgery slow you down?
A: Yeah, it was a serious deal. ... It was a miracle, the way they did it. They didn’t even put sutures in me. Just a glue thing. ... It’s only been 10 months, and I am 95 percent back.
Q: You performed again almost immediately ...
A: I went back and did a performance two months after the surgery, just so the public knew I was determined to get back. And believe it or not, (singing) is a little easier than it was before the surgery because I don’t have that obstruction.
Q: Did the experience affect your outlook on life?
A: Well, you know, I get to thinking, well, if I hadn’t had a little checkup — and I don’t like checkups (laughs) — if I had not done that, I probably would be dead right now. So I gotta be happy about that.
Q: When you do a show, how do you choose what songs to play? Your catalog is so vast.
A: I don’t worry about it. We do sort of a “Tonight Show”-show type format. We’ve got this material, and we’ve got current events to talk about and be funny about. Usually, whatever is in the news media that week is usually the funniest (material) you can find. (laughs)
Q: You wrote a song inspired by President Barack Obama’s election. Were you wrongly characterized in the past as being conservative?
A: I am the great arbitrator. I am the guy in the middle. I’m all American. There’s no doubt about that. ... Everybody knows that I am an American. That’s mainly what I want to leave (in people’s minds).
Q: At the time you came up, in the 1950s and early 1960s, did Bakersfield provide a good environment for playing country music?
A: The whole world was different. There was a 24-hour work shift. There were many, many military bases throughout the United States that had an economy built around them. Those have been shut down. ... It was delightful to be alive at that time. I am certain you guys will never see anything like that again.
Q: Do you mean there will never be as much activity as there was at that time?
A: Well, there was so much happening, and the economy ... was built on three sets of eight-hour shifts. ... And here we are talking about rebuilding our economy, and we are going to do it with this meager attempt? You’re gonna shut down at dark, and you can fly a jet from New York to San Francisco and it’s black?
Q: When people were getting off work at all hours, were there always crowds at your shows?
A: At that time, there was always a full house no matter where you played. People worked hard and they played hard, in Sacramento and San Francisco. And then Oakland had the shipyards. There was just so much activity, and these big military bases employed so many people and had so many sidebar businesses. We have managed to shut down most of our economy when we shut down those bases.
Q: You have lived in the Redding area now for quite some time. Do you feel like it is your home?
A: Well, I’ve got houseboats in a couple of different lakes I don’t want to disclose. So I kinda go back and forth in between there and here. I lived on a houseboat for eight years in Shasta. That’s how I wound up in this country.
Q: Is it quiet there? Is it a good place for writing and playing music?
A: You know, we go out and we play everywhere. ... Let me say, Sacramento is my favorite city in America.
Q: Why is that?
A: I think it is because of the climate. Whatever time it’s bad somewhere else, look at Sacramento! (laughs). You’ve really got it good there. You’ve got the great winds coming in from the Bay, and you know, the mountains in the back.
Q: So many younger artists cite you as an inspiration. Do you get younger fans at your shows?
A: Well, you know, once in a while we will run into an old crowd, but for the most part, we have middle-aged people and then kids in their late 20s and their 30s. People come in carrying their 4-year-old children. We are here because of them.
Q: What do you think of today’s Nashville? Are there any young artists you admire?
A: Well, Brad Paisley is playing guitar anywhere he can possibly play it, and he sings real good.
Q: And he has a sense of humor ...
A: A sense of humor, and he keeps abreast of current affairs. He does a really good job.
Q: Is it important for an artist to keep abreast of current affairs?
A: I think they go hand in hand. Music has always been sort of a musical way of getting your point across for a country boy ... or a country girl! (laughs)
Q: Speaking of which, the Dixie Chicks got in trouble when they commented on current affairs. Has the country-music world ever been receptive to artists going against the grain?
A: You’ll get your finger burned once in a while. ... I had to speak up in behalf of the Chicks, you know. They (addressed) the fact that Grandma doesn’t like war. What’s new about that?
Q: I was in Bakersfield recently, and I crossed Merle Haggard Drive ...
A: That’s right, I got my own road now. ... It’s got stop signs and everything!