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.
Q: You’re still at it after more than five decades. Think you’ll ever retire?
A: Well, if I ever retired, I wouldn’t be doing much. I’ve just been off for six weeks and I was about bored to death. I’ve fished all my life and I play golf, but that don’t substitute for the road and playing shows and the high points of all we’ve accomplished in 50 years. The music is actually something I enjoy doing, even though the traveling’s not so much fun anymore. They’ve made it awful hard to travel.
Q: Is there a new album in the works? It’s been a few years since your last one.
A: We’ve got four different album projects that are all almost finished, and we’ll bring them out in continuity. We’ve got a brand-new studio and we’ve been recording right along all the way, although the lack of radio play for the new stuff makes it difficult. You know, if they put on a new song of mine, they’ve gotta take off “Mama Tried.” So I’m kind of fighting myself on new releases.
Q: What keeps you writing, long after most of your contemporaries have gone to doing mostly just oldies and covers?
A: Writing’s been a part of my life ever since early years of grammar school. It’s something I’ve always done, and something I still enjoy. If I find something interesting enough to write about, well, I’ll try to do it.
Q: With more than 50 years of songs to choose from, how do you choose an onstage set list?
A: We do an ad-lib show every night, no set list, trying to do what the crowd at present wants. We have in our repertoire over 100 songs that we do on a regular basis, and I can’t imagine going out there and doing some song that does not fit at the moment. I like things to fit with the moment. Same thing with humor. If you say the same thing as last night, it won’t be funny to the band and I want it to be funny to everybody in the room. Most of the time, 19 out of 20 nights, it goes real good. But every once in a while, everything goes real wrong. Once I was playing for a crowd of 2,500 sailors in San Diego, which is right on the border with Mexico. I’d gone down there and bought a pair of loafers that were real slick on the bottom. So I came running out onstage and did something I never have again. I ran out, stopped at the mike, my feet went out from under me and I landed flat on my back in front of 2,500 men. So I got up, kicked those loafers into the crowd and did the whole show in my stocking feet.
Q: Do you listen to much modern country?
A: I’ve gotta be honest, I don’t really listen to the radio at all anymore. Once in a while, I’ll scan it and I don’t understand what they’re doing. I can’t find the entertainment in it. I know these guys, occasionally play shows with them and they’re all good people. But I wonder if that record they’re making is something they can actually do. Too much boogie boogie wham-bam and not enough substance. It’s all the same musicians, too, probably eight to 10 musicians play on every record you hear. For a musician hearing things that way, you can tell when a certain guitarist is playing. I know more about the musicians than the artists, actually.
Q: You’re California born and bred. Any place else you think you’d live?
A: I lived in Missouri for a year and Nashville for a year, and went completely nuts in both places. I don’t desire to be a part of the shuffle. When Branson was new, it was a chance for big money – do two shows a day, in one place, you don’t have to travel. It sounded great. Well, Willie (Nelson) and I went and done it, and both of us like to have gone crazy. At that time Branson was not physically able to handle all the people who were coming there. The sewage was intolerable, stunk to high heaven, and the traffic was unbelievable. I’d spend two hours a day onstage and the rest of the time stuck in traffic trying to get home. So I left early.
Q: Do songs like “Okie From Muskogee” or “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which were anthems in their day, mean something different to you now than they did back in 1970?
A: The meanings were always there, but the same words may mean a different thing now. Same thing with a newspaper article, it don’t mean the same thing it did 40 years ago. We are an evolving society. There’s more of a global involvement now, too. We are more aware now of what is going on in Israel, or in Vietnam, than we were then. It’s a totally different world with more complexity.