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Merle Haggard's tour bus is rumbling through the lovely rolling hills of southern Missouri, but at the moment his mind is far away - in Iraq, to be precise. It's not what he knows about the ongoing military action there that's troubling him. It's what he doesn't know.
That's why in his controversial new song, "That's the News," the 66-year-old legend is angry with the media for indulging in wall-to-wall coverage of trashy tabloid stories while questions about the war go unanswered.
"Soldiers are being killed every day, so why were we led to believe the war was over?" he says. "Why were we led to believe that we should go there in the first place? Where are the weapons of mass destruction?
"I'm just asking questions. Are people satisfied with the force-feed, or would they really like to have the news, good or bad?"
While Merle meant it as a broadside at the media, "That's the News" brought up a point that surprised many - namely, that the author of patriotic anthems like "The Fightin' Side of Me" opposed the decision to wage war in Iraq.
Merle was also willing to go to bat for others who shared his oppositional viewpoint - at the height of the Dixie Chicks controversy, he offered a spirited defense of the group. In a recent interview, Chick Martie Maguire singled him out as the only fellow country star who had stuck up for them.
Merle insists there hasn't been a turnaround in his worldview, and he quips that anyone who says there has "needs to turn around and look again." The man who lied about his age at 14 to volunteer for the Marine Corps still considers himself a true-blue patriot - just listen to "Yellow Ribbons," a tribute to the military on his new album, Haggard Like Never Before.
No, Merle just calls 'em like he sees 'em.
It's an approach that has always served him well, and still does. The notoriety of "That's the News" has pushed his record sales to levels he hasn't seen in a while. "It's a resurgence for me," he laughs, "and it couldn't happen to a better guy!"
Even in troubled times, Merle hasn't lost his sense of humor. That's because no matter what social ills he sees, things are pretty good in his personal life. "It's fun to be Merle Haggard right now," he muses cheerfully.
Boosting Merle's mood is his recent extensive dental work, which he claims has improved his singing. "I got a new jawbone built for myself," he notes. "Boy, that makes a lot of difference, gettin' them old rotten teeth out of there."
And more important, Merle's spirits are raised by his family at home in California, who he sings about in several tunes on Haggard Like Never Before.
For example, one song grew out of a spat with wife Theresa. "We've been married for about 16 years, and one day I told her, 'Familiarity breeds contempt,' " he recalls. "Don't ever tell your woman that familiarity breeds contempt. Don't do that.
"I was just joking, but I don't think I've ever made my wife that mad. I didn't know what in the world to do - whether to buy her a new car or just go turn myself in to the police. So I thought, 'Well, maybe I can write myself out of a corner.' "
So he picked up his guitar and came up with the sweet love song "Because of Your Eyes" - and promptly got back into Theresa's good graces. "It did the trick, and does it every day," he reports. "Every time she hears it, she knows where it came from."
Another tune, "Hate to See It Go," is about watching his two youngest children, 14-year-old Jenessa and 11-year-old Ben, grow up. (He also has four adult children from a previous marriage.) "I've got a couple of the neatest kids," he marvels. "We have a really good rapport.
"I realize that I'm living in a period that, if I live to be 150, will always be special. I wish kids didn't have to grow. The bubble bursts and they go away. They go on with their lives, and you're left with just a memory."
So Merle is enjoying these precious days the best he can - even if raising teenagers has its trying moments. "It's a double-edged sword," he admits. "It's the most glorious thing in the world, and it can be the toughest thing in the world."
One thing that isn't stressing Merle out about his kids is their choice of music - which includes their dad's. "They listen to current, Britney Spears kind of music, but they also like Merle Haggard," he smiles. "By choice - you couldn't stuff your own music down your kids' faces if they didn't like it."
And he plans to make much more music for his kids to enjoy before he's finished. Merle says he plans to keep it up "as long as I'm able to keep singing. You've got to be in good health to sing, and I feel better than I have for a long time. I'm ready for another 50 years!"
-- Story by Chris Neal