The legendary "poet of the common man" talks to PopMatters about the state of country music today, his friendship with Johnny Cash and why he hasn’t liked a president since Ronald Reagan.
Today he’s considered a country legend, but that doesn’t mean Merle Haggard’s life has been easy. Dubbed “the poet of the common man", Haggard’s early years were a rough n’ tumble combination of odd jobs and small crimes, which eventually led to prison stays and frequent visits to juvenile detention centers. Born in 1937 to a staunchly religious mother, Haggard experienced early trauma when his father passed away, causing him to act out as a teenager, robbing stores and frequently running away from the high-security boarding schools where he’d been sent. Although Haggard experienced a number of run-ins with the law, he still perused a musical education, which meant modeling a style from musicians of the day (Bob Wills, Hank Williams) and learning any instrument he could get his hands on. In fact, Haggard even witnessed Johnny Cash’s historic performance in San Quentin Prison, never mind the fact that he stood among the audience at the time.
But once the 1960s rolled around, Merle Haggard was on the way to becoming a bona-fide country superstar. After exiting prison, Haggard performed manual labor by day and sang in local clubs by night, eventually leading to dozens of #1 hits that commented on his tough childhood and protested certain long-haired liberal types (Haggard was a well-known supporter of the Vietnam War). Today, songs like “Okie from Muskogee” and “Mama Tried” are considered country classics while Haggard has gone on to release over 30 studio albums, each with varying mixtures of jazz, blues and folk. Fresh off of releasing I Am What I Am, his first studio output since 2007, Haggard sounds more at ease with himself than ever. PopMatters sat down with Haggard to talk about the state of country music today, his friendship with Johnny Cash and why he hasn’t liked a president since Ronald Reagan.
So I just listened to your new album, I Am What I Am. The title to me would indicate a new age of self-acceptance on your end. Would you say that’s accurate?
Well, you know, the album stands for itself. It is what it is. I am what I am. And I do what I do. Here it is. The response to (the album) has really been tremendous. So I’m really glad to hear you like it also.
I’m mostly intrigued by the last track. The lyrics describe a man who has finally grown comfortable in his body and is accepting of the mistakes he’s made.
Yeah, I might be a little bit more comfortable. I might have given in to the fact that you know; I have to be what I’ll be. I can’t really change it. I’m relaxed with myself. I’m comfortable with my own being.
And did your wife Theresa contribute?
Yeah, she works on stage with me. We’ve been together 24 years. And that’s twice as long as I’ve ever been with any woman. So looks like it’s gonna be a steady deal.
How was it working with her on this record?
You know music is a double-edged sword. It takes me away from her and sometimes that’s not good. But it also brings us together in ways that nobody else would understand. Actually singing together, actually harmonizing together, that requires some duel fault that might not exist in other marriages.
Well I see you’re set to play at the Stagecoach Festival pretty soon. How do you feel sharing a stage with the likes of say, Toby Keith and Sugarland? What do you think of that slick, overly produced country style that’s so popular nowadays?
Well fortunately, they don’t package a lot of us together. I’ve rubbed elbows with them from time to time at an awards show or something if I go. But it’s a different world. It’s an electronic world and a world of perfection, a world without much spirit. I think there’s some sort of soul to it, but there’s no chance of a mistake and no chance of hearing a breath, like you used to be able to hear Elvis breathe, you know? You just can’t hear anyone breathe; they take those noises out! So what you have is a bunch of perfect perfection, which is so boring to me. Songs without any melodies. Songs with one note being held out and a hundred chords played underneath it that don’t mean anything. It’s just songs without any message. What’s the mentality? What are they talking about? There’s no originality anymore. Everything is a copy of something else. I just wish we could hear somebody come down the pipe that sounded like they had something original. [For example], they could sing without a band. They could sit up there with a guitar and entertain the millions. Just them and their guitar. And the sad part about it is, the program directors in the world wouldn’t allow that!
I couldn’t agree more, actually. When I listen to country music, it’s almost exclusively stuff like Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. Come to think of it, I’ve always thought that country music shares a lot in common with soul music. In the '60s, soul was a real form of pop music. There was a big band sound with an audible pop purpose. And today, soul has morphed in to what we now know as R&B.
I’m with you. I love soul music, I love rhythm and blues, I love rock ‘n’ roll, I love the old rock and roll, the old blues, the 1940s, '50s and '60s. All that stuff is historical music that I have referred to in my life many times.
Well I definitely think I heard some '60s jazz strains on the new album.
Well, that’s where I started, was on the guitar. I wanted to study jazz and country music, and I studied rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll and all of the obvious guitar-type music that was available. Everything from Django Reinhardt to George Benson. You know, I studied everything I could hear -- Grady Martin and Hank Owen and Luther Perkins and James Burton and Roy Nichols. People like that affected me and worked for me. I have a double reason for being here in this business. I’m trying to be a guitar player on one side of the track and a singer, entertainer and fiddle player on the other side of the track and a songwriter. And have some sort of business head about myself. There are many hats to wear there.
Would you say that your direct inclusion of jazz in your albums has come out a little later in your career as opposed to earlier?
I’m not sure I could nail that down for you. What’s it sound like to you?
Well I do sense a stronger variety of musical genres as the albums go on.
I think you’re right. What it is is, I had a long line of hits. We’ll call it a hot 25 years. After that big hit period was over, I started to explore, because it didn’t matter. I wasn’t really trying to follow a commercial line of any kind. I went out in a lot of different directions and some of them weren’t so good but some of them were. I just went and did what I wanted to do and kind of turned into myself, I guess.
Well it’s great when you can achieve that sense of confidence in a musical career.
Well, Willie [Nelson] said one time, “You know, if you go ahead and be yourself and somebody likes you, then you don’t have to change.” If you’re the real guy on stage, than you don’t even have to change clothes (laughs). If you do what you want to do, you can dress up only in Levis. Once you’re not pleased with yourself, but satisfied with what you are, then you can quit trying to be somebody else, I guess.
Well you do seem like someone with a lot of friends in the business, not to mention some you share a lot in common with. That said, I’m wondering what was it like to see Johnny Cash during his famous concert(s) in San Quentin. Was it particularly influential?
Cash was… I just liked him. We just liked each other and we liked each other’s music. And our families were both from Middle America, his being from Arkansas and mine being from Oklahoma. And we had several different things that were similar in our lives. He once said to me, “You know Haggard, you’re everything that people think I am.” And one time I told him, I said, “You know, you did the dumbest thing I‘ve ever heard you doin’.” And he said, “What was that?” And I said, “When you hired that piano player!” I said, “Johnny Cash with a piano player makes no sense at all.” I said, “What in the Hell do you need with a piano player?” And he took a long pause and looked at me and said to me, “Haggard, you’re the only man in country music uglier than me.”