INDIO, Calif. — Parking was a journey to the dark side for all concerned this weekend. Several acres were set aside for free parking for those coming to the Stagecoach festival just for the day, and the three-lane-wide jam of cars and, mostly, pickup trucks jockeying to get in earlier Saturday was breathtaking.
Even a musician of Merle Haggard’s stature got caught in the fracas, his bus pulling in about an hour behind schedule to the area in back of the Palomino Stage, where he would play later in the evening.
But the esteemed singer and songwriter was relaxed when I caught up with him on the bus, as Tiger Army lead singer Nick 13 launched his new roots-country side project just a few feet away. (Nick 13 paid earnest homage to Haggard and 84-year-old Ray Price, both of whom would be following him shortly on the same stage.)
Haggard’s new album “I Am What I Am” came out last week, and he spoke about the intimate tone of many of the homespun songs. There’s no flash, little outward fire in the gentle collection.
“It’s pretty personal,” Haggard, 73, said softly, sitting at a small table at the back of his bus, while other members of his entourage hung out in the front — joined by Bobby Bare, who climbed aboard after finishing his own set a few minutes before.
“There’s not a lot of politics,” said Haggard, dressed in a comfortable-looking old New York Athletics jersey. “I guess it’s a little more from the heart than the last few albums.” There’s a sweetly reflective remembrance about growing up in Bakersfield, “Oil Tanker Train”; a song about his home in Northern California, “Down at the End of the Road”; and a bittersweet observation that love is “Pretty When It’s New.”
The one exception to the general tone of songs of the heart and hearth is “I’ve Seen It Go Away,” the new album’s lead-off track. Without throwing barbs, he gently but sadly notes many of the things he’s observed of the best of what defines America to its citizens and the rest of the world, how over time “I’ve seen it go away.”
Is the man famously “proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” getting disillusioned with the land he’s loved for so long?
“Some people might say that,” he said. “Maybe I am,” he added with a little chuckle. “But I think there are some people who are going to agree with it too. I think more people have started to turn our direction in the last couple of months, so I think it sounds right up to date.”
Haggard said the lung cancer for which he underwent surgery in 2008 has stayed in remission and he’s feeling strong enough to pump up his touring schedule again. “We have a couple of children who are out of the house now, and we have some extra time.”
For himself, Haggard was looking forward to hearing a bit of Price’s set scheduled immediately before his own.
“Willie and I went on tour with him two times, and he sounded great,” Haggard said. “He really made us take notice.”