If there were to be a Mount Rushmore of country music, who should be on it? Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, of course, which takes care of half of it. We can leave one of the remaining spots open for debate, but there’s no question about who would bat third in this lineup: Merle Haggard, now 77 years old and one of the most iconic figures country music has ever produced.
As at odds as America seems to be across its various divides right now, one thing that seemingly everyone can agree on is Haggard’s greatness as a voice for the everyman. Poet laureate of the honky-tonk set, Haggard is beloved by political conservatives for “Okie From Muskogee” and by progressives for the 1972 interracial love song “Irma Jackson.”
Haggard will play Saturday night at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall as part of the Southern Folklife Collection’s 25-year-anniversary festivities. We caught up with him by phone from his California home base.