Photo Phil Bonyata
Photo Phil Bonyata
With over three dozen Number One country hits, countless awards (from the Academy of Country Music, Country Music Association, BMI and the Grammys to mention a few) and accolades from fans and contemporaries alike, it seems that Country legend Merle Haggard has achieved more than most in this business.
Despite devoting a good portion of his later life to drink and drugs (it's been reported that he blew through $100 million in the '80s with his destructive lifestyle), Haggard - now well into his golden years - is not only clean and sober, but also, arguably, making some of the best music of his career. His previous two outings with Epitaph Records, If I Could Only Fly and Roots Vol. 1, along with the promise of a new album filled with fresh self-penned numbers, seems to only solidify that you're never to old to achieve greatness.
Livewire's Tony Bonyata got the opportunity to sit down with this Country music giant to discuss his thoughts on his life, loves, music and the uncertain future of our world.
Livewire: I know I'm a few of weeks late, but happy birthday.
Merle: Well, thank you. I just turned 66.
Livewire: Congratulations. It looks like you're in pretty good shape.
Merle: Yeah, I'm in pretty good shape.
Livewire: Your current tour just started not too long ago. How's the response been so far?
Merle: It's sold out so far and everybody's happy and we're getting standing ovations. I guess you couldn't ask for more than that.
Livewire: Are you performing any new material on this tour?
Merle: We do an ad-lib show, so it depends upon the attention and the sobriety of the audience (sly smile). Sometimes if you get 'em too drunk they don't pay no attention to what you're doin' anyways, so you might as well just do old songs. But if you get one that's paying attention, sometimes we'll do some new material.
Livewire: Are you working on a new album?
Merle: We have one just about ready to go. We're gonna do one more session before we say that's it for this particular album. We're gonna do that when we get back from this tour on May 5th, Cinco de Mayo. So we're going straight into the studio on the 6th.
Livewire: Do you have an idea of when it'll be released?
Merle: Fourth of July. We've got the cover and the titles, I just wanna do one more session in an effort to cut a song that we've already done and make it a little bit better.
Livewire: Will this be a follow-up to your last album of old covers Roots Vol. 1 or something different?
Merle: No, its altogether different. We're gonna call it Haggard. That'll be the name of the album. It's all new songs.
Livewire: All written by you?
Merle: All except one. 95% of the album is my writing, by choice, because it seems to be what the distributors want.
Livewire: Weren't they pleased with your last album of covers?
Merle: The really don't care who I admired, I don't think. They're more interested in this time in which we live. They're probably wanting to know what I think now. If there's a fan base out there they wanna hear something that fits the times like when I wrote "Fightin' Side of Me." So I'm just writing about the news, I guess, on a couple of songs. And then there's a couple of love songs.
Livewire: So you do tackle some of the political issues that are going on today?
Merle: Yeah, but its more like questions than answers. I mean, what if we don't find weapons of mass destruction? I just wonder now that we've bitten off that big chew, who are we gonna whip now? I think its very necessary that the President comes up with some weapons. If he was right he's gonna look good, but if he's not right, people are gonna be less than happy with him.
Livewire: I understand that you had back surgery not too long ago.
Merle: No, I had a back injury early on in my life. I have a reoccurring condition that's aggravated by stage work, you know, playin' the guitar and all that. I had some surgery on my feet, which has helped my back some. Your feet have something to do with the way that you walk, so it's corrected some of the problems. I haven't had any problems with my back since I got the foot surgery.
Livewire: Wasn't it difficult to tour with a bad back?
Merle: I've sort of hassled with it all my life. I thought this doctor was blowin' his own horn when he said, "I can fix your back by operating on your foot." He was already gonna do some other things to my feet, so I let him go ahead. And since the operation I haven't had any back problems. So maybe the guy knew what he was talking about. They shaved a little piece of bone off my small toe. You see, you balance yourself a certain way and this toe had grown under the other ones. So he cut it loose, where I could balance myself and it makes me walk straight.
Frank Mull [Merle's tour manager]: People think he's sober for the first time in 30 years (laughs).
Livewire: You think it might've been caused in part from your cowboy boots?
Merle: It probably didn't help - wearing cowboy boots.
Livewire: What is it that keeps you going out on the road?
Merle: Well, its a blast. Its energy - I get energy from them and they seem to enjoy what I do. The efforts are rewarded. And I think it probably keeps me alive. It makes my wife mad, you know, she wants me to stay home all the time. But its what I've done all my life and I think when I quit doing it I'll probably go away pretty quick.
Livewire: You mentioned your wife. Theresa's now your fifth one?
Merle: I quit countin' a while back. I refer to her as my current wife. No, her and I have been together almost 15 years, and married about 10 years. Looks like it may be a steady deal.
Livewire: I understand that a couple of your ex's still work for you.
Merle: My second wife Bonnie Owens [Buck Owens' first wife] and I worked together after we divorced for a period of maybe 20 years. And I managed to stay friends with another wife. And then there's one that I don't mess with. Everybody's got one of those.
Livewire: I hear that!
Merle: Afraid to call 'em or anything. Won't let you be nice.
Livewire: And with kids it makes it all the harder. You must have a stable full of your own.
Merle: I've got two families. I've got one young family by the first wife, with four children. And then I have two children by Theresa, one boy 10 and one girl 13. And then, of course, there's a couple that claim to be, but I haven't done any DNA tests or anything (laughs).
Livewire: What do your kids think of you music?
Merle: Aww, you know, they won't tell you what they really think. They tell you one thing and think another, but they seem to like my music. My 10 year old son likes it. He's trying to play guitar and everything. He likes that kind of music.
Livewire: How do you feel about the current state of country music?
Merle: Oh, its a lot different than what I call country. I really don't think that's what it is. Its sort of country without the grit, you know? Pretty generic and pretty smooth. I enjoy the videos with the sound off, where you can look at the belly buttons and everything. Really some pretty girls, but I don't know about the music.
Livewire: It seems that you and the old country guys aren't getting a fair shake on the radio and...
Merle: Oh, I think it's clearly age discrimination. I think it really is discrimination without a doubt. There's been periods of broadcasts in the past where you could see all ages of entertainers, ranging from George Burns to Shirley Temple. That's not the condition now. It's easier to force feed people than it is to give 'em what they want. It makes more money.
Livewire: Are there any artists today - country or otherwise - that you admire?
Merle: Diana Krall knocks me out. I like jazz and I like her simple approach. And there's some Latino music I like, and some reggae music. I like everything that's good. Probably the same things you like. The only thing that I miss lately in all music is somebody that will put out a melody that you can whistle. It doesn't seem like there's anything happening like that.
Livewire: Something tells me we're going to hear a few of those tonight at your show.
Merle: I hope so.
Livewire: What, in your own life, are you proudest of?
Merle: Oh, I think I'm most proud of my music and my children, and my current wife. She's been very supportive and probably responsible for me being here. I think I'm most proud of my family right now. I'm more into that then I've ever been. It also gives a new area to draw from in creativity with my songs. I'm just writin' about my little ol' love affair. And then with the war you got plenty to write about (laughs).
Livewire: Is there a single album of yours that best sums up Merle Haggard?
Merle: Oh, probably 190 Proof or Back To The Barrooms. I guess those would be the epitome of the Haggard sound.
Livewire: How do you feel some of your later material, such as If I Could Only Fly, ranks next to those albums.
Merle: Times have changed and it really doesn't seem to get a fair shake, like we were talkin' awhile ago. I don't know if those songs were as good as I thought they were. They weren't because they didn't get played on the air.
Livewire: I beg to differ, Merle, but that is a beautiful album.
Merle: I thought so.
Livewire: To hear you doing this wonderful material so late in your career is great. Personally I feel that that this stands along some of your best work.
Merle: Well, thank you. And I've got a good album comin.' It's like that. It's a little different. Its new, but its not me trying to sound like I used to be. Its just the way it is now and I think that's the way it should be done, you know? I can't bring back the past. There's no use re-recording those songs anymore. They've already been cut, so we're cutting new ones.
Livewire: What's a perfect day consist of for you today?
Merle: Well, you know, sex has slipped down to around number seven - right after loose shoes (laughs). I don't know, we've had a good day today. We came from up in Minnesota and had a good time up there. Had a good show and we drove down without incident. We didn't have any tires blow out and we didn't break any windows. It's been a pretty good day.
Frank Mull: The perfect day is when the bus doesn't break down and he writes two songs.
Livewire: I understand that you've got a pretty good relationship with Johnny Cash?
Merle: Yeah, if anybody can have. He's been pretty sick lately and June won't hardly let anyone see him. I think he's really struggling with his health. I haven't seen him personally in about a year. I tried to converse through Mary Stuart with him, and Marty said he hadn't been able to contact him or talk to him in three or four months himself. And he lives next door to him. You know as much as I do. You read it in the paper, you know? And here he is with a hit record.
Livewire: The kid's are eating it up.
Merle: Yeah, they like him. Everybody likes Johnny Cash. I think the sad part of it is his health is givin' him problems.
Livewire: Have you seen his new "Hurt" video?
Merle: No, but I heard the concept and I thought it was great.
Livewire: It's one of the most moving music videos I've ever seen.
Frank Mull: It brings an enjoyable tear.
Merle: I'm a Johnny Cash fan too, and without seeing it I know it must be great, 'cause I understand what they did with him. He has that ever-evolving character that would lend itself to that thought real well.
Livewire: A few years ago you signed with the Epitaph label. Why did you decide to sign with a label known mainly for punk rock?
Merle: Well, you know, labels don't really offer as much as they used to, and I think its gonna be even less as things progress. We're just doin' one album at a time with 'em. They've been fair and they paid me and the people have been good to me there. They're tryin' to prove that they can be a label with a wide scope roster, rather than just isolated as a punk rock label. I think they want to be a full store. That's their intentions and I think that signing me was a move in that direction, from their point of view. For me it was an association with young people. That's what I was interested in. They were proud to have me over there, and I was proud to be over there.
Livewire: Is your new album going to be on Epitaph?
Merle: There's a very good chance that it will be. They've expressed their interest in it. It'll either be with them or my own label, I'm not sure. It's been said that Bill Gates has come up with something that'll be released in December that's gonna put a lid on counterfeiting. If that's a fact then it's really interesting to own your own product - with all the potential methods of downloading. And if you don't own it, then you're really in trouble - with all the new gimmicks. So if they come up with the right money and the money to do the promotion and all that, I'll go with 'em again. If not, I think I may stay with my own label this time.
Livewire: Is this label something you've had for awhile?
Merle: HAG Records, is a company that I've owned. I've had a couple of gospel releases on it. We developed a pretty good distribution setup there and we do have something to use in case they don't want to sign us. But that's never been the condition. We've got Capitol Records that wants to sign us, and Epitaph wants to sign us. So there's two or three options.
Livewire: It's got to feel nice to have that safety net of your own company to fall back on though.
Merle: It is nice. We're not tied to any one offer, and, like I say, we're just doin' one album at a time, so that we don't get into any lengthy contracts. At my age, I don't buy but a half a loaf of bread, you know? (laughs)
Livewire: I understand that you were working on a novel at one time ["The Sins of John Tom Mullen"].
Merle: Yeah, but I don't know if it'll ever get done. That's not my cup of tea, I don't think. Songs is probably my...
Livewire: How far into it did you get?
Merle: Not far enough. Not enough to talk about.
Livewire: I also understand that Robert Duvall was planning on making a film on your life story. Do you know if this is still going to happen?
Merle: That's true. Billy Bob Thorton and Robert Duvall had the co-rights on it for a couple of years, then Robert got into doin', I think it was, The Apostle, which was a project of his own. And he sort of got sidetracked from doin' this thing with me. But I think he still wants first option to direct it - if and when the project should surface again, which it may. There's a rumor that there may be an attempt at organizing a possible script for a series on my life, which, when you look at my police record, you'd have to have more than one hour to tell the story.
Livewire: They'd have to change it from a mini to a maxi-series.
Merle: Yeah, you need more than one hour (laughs).
Livewire: What's your favorite childhood memory?
Merle: Gettin' out of jail.
Merle: Well, I was child (laughs). Oh, probably Christmas 1945. That was the last Christmas my dad was alive.
Livewire: You were real close to your father?
Livewire: Is it true that you were raised in a train car that your father converted into your home?
Merle: Yeah. Years ago there was a lot of people that did that. They bought refrigerator cars and converted them into living quarters. You couldn't tell it. It was stuck in right by a bunch of other ordinary homes. But if you got out and looked real close at the edge of the house you could tell it was made from a railroad car. When I grew up there wasn't air-conditioning or anything of that nature, and this old car had a wall thickness of about ten inches. So we had a little warmer house in the winter and a little cooler in the summer. It sounds like something from a Woody Guthrie song, but it's true; I was raised in a freight car (laughs).
Livewire: Some of your older numbers have dealt with the time of the Great Depression. What's the attraction to that period?
Merle: My investigation of music and the Dustbowl and the Depression and all the things that took place in the late '20s and early '30s havin' to do with the inspiration for black blues and jazz and country music - it all came about over the same problems that were there because of the flood of 1927 and the Dustbowl that followed. When you get to readin' about where the music and John Steinbeck and all those people like that come from, the further you go the more interesting it becomes. There's a book called "The Rising Tide" that tells how for a hundred years we pretty well raped the Mississippi Valley and then we reaped the aftermath during the Dustbowl and all of that. We caused it all. But out of that misery came music that we all identify with; country music, blues, jazz. Earthy music seemed to have its origination point in and around that period and that event.
Livewire: Hard times seem to often bring about great art. Did you find that some of your most creative periods were right after a divorce?
Merle: Well, sure. I'm sure that's why I had to get in trouble, and have divorces and all that stuff, so I'd have the well to draw material from.
Livewire: Speaking of trouble, are your wild days of drinking and drugs behind you?
Merle: Well, I'm kinda like George Carlin. I think that there ought to be a time where everybody should have all the drugs they want and there'd be nobody in charge, sort of like...now! (laughs) No, I could pass any test they'd wanna give me right now, I think. I don't do anything. I've quit something about every three days. I've smoked Camels for more years than I care to mention, but I haven't had a cigarette since '91. I haven't had a joint since '95.
Livewire: Was pot as big of a problem as cigarettes?
Merle: I never did smoke a whole lot. I was recommended by more than one doctor to do it in place of a Valium or anything like that. 'Cause I was already a smoker, it was easy to get addicted. The one thing that they don't teach you about marijuana is how addictive it is. They act like marijuana is the light-weight [drug] and there's nothing to be afraid of, when the amount and moderation is as important as it is with anything else. It's like talkin' about tomatoes and using only one kind. I mean there's a million kinds of marijuana. And chances are you won't find the right kind the first time you smoke it. I never did smoke or never did care about smoking it. I was 48-years old before anybody talked me into it for medicinal purposes, instead of some of these drugs that they give you that will lead you to heart surgery and things of that nature. It looks like a well planned path that the insurance companies and the doctors, and people of that profession, have planned for everybody. They gave me a stint and an angioplasty and handed me some Lipitor (a blood thinner) and said we'll have you back for heart surgery in five years. I handed them back their Lipitor and said, 'I beg your pardon, I won't be back. I'll find another way.' And I did. My numbers are all perfect and I'll not be having no heart surgery.
We live under such a overwhelming existence of double standards in America. We say one thing and mean another. We have two sets of laws - one for the fellow with money and one for the guy who doesn't have any money. I don't know how much you know about hemp, but there was a time when hemp was the number one export. It gave nutrition to the soil, which is something that cotton doesn't do and something that oil drilling doesn't do. It could be the answer to the problems of the entire world right now. And everybody'll go, 'haw, haw, haw!,' but its a fact. We've been brainwashed with hemp and led to believe that...We've been raised under the mentality that if somebody smokes marijuana, we should give him 65 years in prison somewhere. Well, what about the kids that sniff gas? We don't stop the production of oil because somebody has a problem with sniffin' gas. That's the mentality that we've been led to favor and its real ignorance on our part. We've got tobacco farmers and corn farmers and people all over the country that would love to have the right to grow hemp. You can build a bridge out it. You can make pants out of it.
Frank Mull: When was it that it was outlawed?
Merle: I'm not sure, but it was sometime around when the oil barons came in. They made a movie called Reefer Madness that made people fear for their lives. I can remember my mother sayin', 'Oh, son, whatever you do, don't let somebody slip you one of them marijuana cigarettes.' Well, I believed her! I believed her because certainly she knows what she's talking about. She's never lied to me. Only thing was, she'd been lied to and the country's been lied to, and the children they try it and say, 'Well, what else did they lie to us about?' I think its time we be honest and start lookin' for answers to a fuel that can be used without contaminating the air. Something that can grown in the soil and then be turned back over and be useful, as opposed to cuttin' down the rain forest and drillin' holes in the earth. You know, this earth spins just like a tire and if you take weights off the tire, the wobble's gonna change. And what the wobble changing might do to this planet is really a pretty good question. It could all possibly be solved with hemp. Before people laugh when they read this article, they need to investigate what they're laughing about.
Livewire: Become critical thinkers.
Merle: Oh yeah. We need to be creative with our thoughts. We need to save ourselves. We're a society that's about to go into, I think, a phase one of intelligence, or we'll wipe ourselves out - one of the two. I think it's happened in the past, I think we all know that. And here we are again, right on the verge of becoming either residents of the universe or another dead planet.
Livewire: Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?
Merle: Boy, I could give you a couple, but it'd get me in trouble at home (laughs). No, not really. I've had a great life. I've got to meet just about everybody I ever wanted to meet, save a few. I got to shake hands with John Wayne. I got to meet Jimmy Stewart. I got to be with Elvis Presley. Ringo Starr came to house to play drums. Those are over and above any dreams I ever had as a child.
Livewire: And I got to shake Merle Haggard's hand.
Merle: Welp, that's the hand that shook the ol' Duke's.
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