“He’ll tell you he’s a country singer, but to me the essence of rock and roll is a cry of freedom and rebellion. And I don’t know anyone who embodies it better. Every aspect of his life is a refusal to submit.” – Producer Don Was, speaking to Newsweek.
As part of a vanishing breed that included Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and George Jones, Merle Haggard is one of the last true outlaws of American music.
Haggard is a survivor who, at age 20, began serving a three-year sentence in California’s San Quentin maximum security prison, having previously escaped jails and reform schools 17 times.
“They couldn’t really hold me anywhere, so they considered me an escape risk,” says Haggard.
“I don’t think I was really all that bad of a guy, and eventually I turned things around.”
Indeed he did, as Haggard would go on to write and record some of the most timeless classics, from Okie From Muskogee to Mama Tried to If We Make It Through December. His body of work easily places him beside Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Bill Monroe as one of the most influential artists in country music history.
His most recent studio album, 2011’s Working in Tennessee, is exemplary of the pedigree and status he has worked so hard to cultivate over the years – and he is showing zero signs of slowing down anytime soon.
In an exclusive interview, Rock Cellar Magazine recently tracked down country icon Merle Haggard for a wide-ranging conversation about prison, freedom, fishing, trains, and the upcoming American leg of his tour that kicks off on June 19 in Texas.
Rock Cellar Magazine: First off, thank you for granting us an interview. You don’t give many.
Merle Haggard: Well, then they mean more, I figure.
RCM: Your 2013 tour included several dates in Eastern Canada. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think about traveling up north?
MH: The border (laughs). They don’t recognize my pardon at the Canadian border, so it’s always a hassle, y’know. I’ve got a full unconditional pardon. But we’ve been going up there for many, many years and we’ve done a lot of shows. We’ve also made a lot of friends in Canada, so the hassle at the border is worth it.
RCM: Tell us about your band.
MH: I’ve got one of the best groups together that I’ve had in years. I’ve had a band since 1965, the Strangers have been with me, and now my son Benny is also playing. He’s only 20 years old and he’s been playing since he was 15. I think he appeals to the younger audience, and we got a really good group.
RCM: Ben’s voice sounds a bit like his dad’s, don’t you think?
MH: Yeah, there’s some of me in there, but it’s mostly his own. He’s doing his own thing, but I hear a little bit of me in his guitar playing too. He’s doing really great.
RCM: Do you think your voice has changed much over the years?
MH: It’s probably changed and evolved, I’d say. It’s probably deeper, but other than that I hope it’s the same. We do the songs in the same keys that I did ’em in when I was in my 20s. Yep.
RCM: Like Bob Dylan, you have an ever-changing set list. Do you plan your sets out beforehand?
MH: I haven’t used a set list since 1969, so we just hit the stage with a hundred songs or so and we call ’em right there.
So when we hit the road again, we might be playing That’s the Way Love Goes, Today I Started Loving You Again or Runaway Mama, and then the next night maybe we’ll do Footlights, Workin’ Man Blues or If I Could Only Fly. Depends on the crowd, the place we’re playing in, how we’re feeling and things like that.
We want every night to feel special and bring the audience into the moment. We like to bring them to their feet at the end of the night, enjoying themselves and perhaps for a moment forget about some of the things going on in the world.
RCM: Like the recent Boston Marathon bombings?
MH: Right. That was a terrible thing but it could have been a lot worse. I’m just glad it was isolated there and the police got them when they did. When it first came on the news I was just hoping it was isolated to the city of Boston, and it wasn’t some cartel or some other country involved.
Like I said, it’s a terrible thing, but there’s no way around it. These things are going to happen here in America, and all the bad words you can think of aren’t good enough to describe it.
RCM: You’ve certainly faced plenty of adversity in your life, serving time in several prisons. What did the passage of time feel like during your three years behind bars at San Quentin?
MH: Well, it’s just one day at a time. You can’t get in a hurry and you can’t let the confinement get to you or you’d beat your head against the wall. You just have to take it easy and do what you’ve been sentenced to do. At the same time, you have to make sure the other inmates don’t feel in any way that you think you’re any better than them.
RCM: Tell us about some of the characters you met in prison?
MH: There was one crazy guy named Shitty Fred, we called him, that I remember well. He’d pull all sorts of stunts, like taking a raincoat and filling all the pockets with human shit. Then he’d go up on this scaffold when no one was looking and hurl shit at the guards.
Sometimes he’d come into the mess hall covered in shit with a great big smile on his face. As you can guess, nobody wanted to be anywhere near Shitty Fred.
RCM: There must have been some pretty dark times in there.
MH: Yeah, horrors too painful to think about, much less talk about, y’know.
RCM: Did you make friends at San Quentin?
MH: I had close friends there. Delbert Smart was a guy who played guitar and he lived about two blocks from me when we were kids. He and I winded up at San Quentin together, both of us just barely 20 years old. I wasn’t yet 20 when I arrived there. He ended up spending his entire life in prison. He did 40-something years. He did 20 years in Quentin and 20 years later in Huntsville in Texas. He died in Huntsville Prison, oh, about a year ago. I always look at that as, that could have been me, had I made the wrong decisions.
You never know what saves you. You never know what it was, and you may never know until you get on the other side and somebody says, “Look, this is how it all happened for you.”
RCM: You were in the audience when inmates at San Quentin were treated to a concert by Johnny Cash in 1958, right?
MH: Yeah. And the funny thing is, when we spoke a few years later I told him how much I loved seeing that show and Johnny said, “You know Merle, I don’t remember you playing that day?” He was thinking I was maybe a performer, and I told him, “No man, I was in the audience.”
RCM: What’s the greatest lesson you learned at San Quentin?
MH: I learned to appreciate freedom, because there I didn’t have any.
RCM: How do you like to spend your free time these days?
MH: For years I’ve been interested in bass fishing. I do a lot of boating and bass fishing, and I live in an area where I have a little river that runs right behind me. And then I’ve got several ponds and another creek that runs diagonal in the other direction. So I’m kind of surrounded by water. I can walk out my front door and anywhere within a hundred yards will be a good fish.
RCM: So you’re an outdoorsman?
MH: Well, when it comes to fishing, a lot of it is about being out in the beautiful country with no signs of man and just having a chance to absorb the beauty that’s available in our wonderful world. My kids do a lot of mountain biking, so I like to grab their bike sometimes and get out there. I probably should do more than I do.
But bass fishing is one of my favorite things to do.
RCM: What can you tell us about bass?
MH: They’re unpredictable. They’re like women, you could say (laughs). But that’s what makes bass so interesting to fish. They’re intelligent too.
RCM: Do you have a decent amount of privacy where you live in Northern California?
MH: People where I live, they don’t make a big deal about who I am. Once in a while, though, there’ll be somebody who sees me and gets overwhelmed, but most people are just really considerate of my privacy around my home. When I go out, though, I often wear sunglasses and a baseball hat, but it don’t help any, so I just kind of take it all in stride.
RCM: U2’s Bono was once asked why he’s always wearing sunglasses and he said, “It’s part vanity, it’s part privacy, and part sensitivity.”
MH: To me, I’m just trying to hide my old wrinkled face. (laughs)
RCM: Do you and your wife Theresa have a favorite vacation spot?
MH: We try to spend every year, a week or so in Mendocino, California which is in the Fort Bragg area.
It is absolutely gorgeous and the temperature stays about the same all the time. The property is about $40 an inch (laughs). I don’t know, man, it’s great and we’re talking about the upper edge of the Northern California coast. It’s hard to beat.
RCM: Have you ever considered living elsewhere?
MH: We’re always talking about moving away someplace where we’d be more centrally located, so we can be home more. If we do a 10-day tour, we end up spending two days going to it and two days coming back because of our location in California. And with this tour, we’ll be all over the U.S. playing shows in Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and so on. I think we’ll wrap up the year with a couple shows in Nevada.
But I don’t know if we’ll ever move. I was raised in California along with my family, and now my youngest family, so you know our roots run deep.
RCM: In the song Oil Tanker Train, you write about living in a boxcar…
MH: When my father migrated from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression, he bought this piece of land where there was an old abandoned boxcar and converted it into our family home. I remember how it would shake our home when these big trains loaded with crude oil would be coming. It felt like an earthquake.
RCM: And you grew up in an oil community, right?
MH: Yeah, in fact the town was named Oildale and there were a lot of tank cars and a lot of activity in the oil fields there that had to do with the railroads. We lived just a stone’s throw away from the railroad tracks, and I’d sometimes hop the open freight cars when the trains passed by.
RCM: What would compel you to hop a moving freight train?
MH: I was overpowered, and it was just something I had to do for some reason. I had to get out there and ride a freight train like Jimmie Rodgers did and experience it firsthand. It was dangerous, kind of scary, and it’s uncomfortable. I rode a freight car one time through a snowstorm and got inside the ice compartment, back before they had refrigeration. I froze my ass off.
RCM: You’re also a model railroader, aren’t you?
MH: I’ve got a great collection of model trains, but I haven’t had a train set up in years. I once had an O-gage, 1/4-inch scale that was 750 feet and ran around the circumference of the house. I’ve still got the trains and a few of them sitting around in our house. But there’s not an active model railroad in my life right now. I wish there was.
The Super Chief was always my favorite passenger line because my dad worked for Santa Fe for many years.
RCM: Like your dad, you also play the fiddle. What drew you to that instrument?
MH: The fiddle is a weapon. It’s something that, if you decide to play the fiddle, you can set aside seven years and get after it because it’s going to take that long to learn. The violin was the first instrument that I tried to play when I was nine years old. My mother got me nine lessons, and about halfway through the lessons, the lady came and told my mother, “You’re wasting your money on trying to teach this boy to read music.
He can already play music,” she said, “He doesn’t need it and he probably never will learn to read music.”
RCM: What do you remember about some of the first songs you wrote?
MH: I don’t remember the substance of them, but I guess they were about love affairs and about leaving on a freight train, probably, or something like that. I’m thinking they would have been some of the songs that I finally did write and record.
RCM: It seems that a common thread in all the songs you’ve written over the years is giving a voice to the voiceless in America, whether you’re writing about prisoners, fugitives, or people just down on their luck.
MH: Well, I sure do appreciate you noticing that, as it’s probably true. I guess I feel like I’m often standing up for those that can’t stand up for themselves, for whatever reason that may be. Maybe they’re afraid, or not in a position to be heard. I’ve been there myself, so if I can do good for those that are angry or sad, then that’s something I should be doing, I figure.
RCM: When will your life story be told on film?
MH: There’s actually a billionaire waiting to do my life story as a movie, so we’ve got that going on.
RCM: Who would play the role of Merle Haggard?
MH: Those questions can’t be answered right now. But it may or may not ever happen, as it’s been on the plate for 30 years now (laughs). It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s there and it’s looming in front of me.
RCM: And hopefully, your life story is far from over…
MH: For a man my age, I’m doing fantastic I think. I’m thankful for the life I’ve been given. I’m on the road with family, and I tell ya, my wife Theresa, I don’t know how she’s put up with me this long. She wasn’t involved with the business when I met her, but she’s learned to sing and she’s learned to live my kind of life. And all I can do is love her for it. Marriage takes a lot of effort, so you got to be in love with somebody. You can’t fake it.
RCM: Are there any young artists today that resonate with you?
MH: I’ve been fascinated by this kid named Hunter Hayes. I’ve been knowing him since he was about 12 years old, and I’m a big fan. If you haven’t heard of him, you will soon. He got nine Grammys or something like that this year. He plays drums, he plays guitar, he played everything on his record I think, and he’s a good, honest man.
RCM: Do you find that many artists are relying too heavily on studio technology these days, especially when it comes to singing?
MH: It’s true, we don’t know who can sing and who can’t sing nowadays because of what is available in the studios now. You really don’t know if somebody can sing or not, but maybe it don’t matter. I’ll tell ya, there’s a lot of people — big stars right now that I won’t name — that I understand can’t sing a lick. In fact, I’ve had a couple of them come right up and tell me, “Hey Merle, you know I don’t plan to be a singer,” they’ll say, “I’m just one of these boys who got lucky, and the girls like me, but I can’t sing a note.” Anyways, I think that’s messed up, but I do really appreciate their honesty in telling me that.
RCM: How hands-on are you with studio technology when recording an album?
MH: I’m one that’s been around the studios for 50 years, and I have a job to do every time I step in there. My job is to sing and to arrange the music, but I don’t mess with the electronics. I know what the slider does and sometimes I push the slider up a little bit or something. But for the most part I don’t even touch it. I just know about it, and I know the capability of it.
We just finished a new studio in California and it’s really something. It’s probably overkill, but we have analog and Pro Tools. So we have both of them and we try to use both of them for the betterment of the record. Plus, I released my last two records on vinyl.
RCM: Vinyl has made a big comeback in recent years.
MH: Vinyl is the peak. We didn’t get any better than that, we got worse. I know for a fact that vinyl sounds a lot better than digital.
RCM: Is there an artist that you especially looked up to and aspired to be like?
MH: Les Paul, who died a few years ago, was something almost mystical to me. We went up and visited with him when he played on Monday nights in New York. Then he came out to my show the next night at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. And he was just a regular guy, man, and he was knocked out by my tone that I was getting from my guitar.
And the first thing he wanted to know, the first thing he said to me was, “What are you using for your front toggle switch on that tone? That’s the greatest tone.” He was really just a regular guy. I really appreciated meeting him, and it’s something I’ll never forget. He was such an amazing guitarist, inventor, and songwriter.
RCM: Can you share some insight into your songwriting process?
MH: Every song I write has its own way to be born, you might say. You don’t know how it’s going to come about. I don’t sit down with a pen and paper and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a song.” I don’t sweat things out like that. They either come to me or they don’t. But usually when they do come, they come all together, both the song and the melody.
I know I’m not getting any younger, but I’m always trying to write something. And I’m always hoping this next song will be the one that I was born to write.