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Once, Merle Haggard could see no further than the walls of San Quentin prison. Today he views life from the top of the world of country music—the newest member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
A star-studded tribute album and a television special add to the attention focused on the 57-year-old Bakersfield, Calif., native. The sudden focus on him left the “Okie From Muskogee” singer at a rare loss for words. “After all these years of writing songs and coming up with unique phrases, you’d think a guy like me would have something great to say,” he confided to Country Weekly in an exclusive interview not long before the Oct. 5 Hall of Fame ceremony.
“I guess it means about the same to me that it means to everybody else who’s in the Hall of Fame,” Merle said. “It’s the ultimate.”
The poet of the common man was lifted into the elite country music club during The 28th Annual Country Music Association Awards. Willie Nelson, last year’s Hall of Fame honoree, welcomed Merle as the 57th recipient of the honor as a nation of fans watched on the CBS-TV broadcast special.
Numbers begin to tell the story behind the award. To date, “The Hag” has received 43 CMA nominations—more than any other artist. His 67 albums produced 38 No. 1 hits, including “Branded Man,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Workin’ Man Blues.”
Not too shabby for a one-time ne’er-do-well who “turned 21 in prison,” as he sang on the autobiographical “Mama Tried.” An amazing gift for music changed Merle from San Quentin prisoner to music legend and one of the most widely analyzed and interpreted tunesmiths.
More attention is coming his way. Mama’s Hungry Eyes, an all-star album tribute to Haggard, is set for release this month. And a two-part TV special, Merle Haggard: An American Story, will air next month on TNN: The Nashville Network.
“I guess a lot of people have been thinking a lot about Merle Haggard this year,” he said.
The thoughts are all positive.
“He set the standards in country music for the singer and the song, and they’re still higher than most of us will ever reach,” said Emmylou Harris. “He’s still doing it nowadays, and the rest of us are just trying to be half as good as he is.”
“Merle and I are Pancho and Lefty,” said Willie, referring to the title characters of their 1983 No. 1 duet. “He writes songs that come from the heart and soul.”
Merle deflects the praise, joking that a slew of awards like the Hall of Fame induction won’t slow him down.
“I’m a pretty young guy for my age,” he said. “I hope they let me go ahead and continue to work the road and write songs—I hope it doesn’t mean I have to quit.”
Haggard hasn’t taken a vacation since 1983, working “every day” on his 700-acre farm near Lake Shasta in Northern California (his sprawling tiled-roof hacienda is called Shade Tree Manor) or on the seemingly endless concert trail.
As for his health: “I can still run a 100-yard dash pretty good. I quit everything except salt and country music. I still have a little salt in my eggs. I quit Camels in 1991.”
He and fifth wife Theresa Ann Lane have a young son and daughter, Bennie and Janessa, and Merle’s enjoying his new family. “When I push my kids through the grocery store, people ask if they’re my grandchildren. I tell them, ‘I beg your pardon, these are mine.’
Binion Louis “Bennie” Haggard, who will celebrate his second birthday in December, and Janessa have four much older siblings by Merle’s first wife, Leona Hobbs, whom he married in the late 1950s: Dana, Marty, Kelli and Noel. His children have made Merle a grandfather eight times.
“I love my grandchildren as much as I should, and maybe now I can be a better dad to my youngest children than I was with my earlier families,” Merle said.
In his own youth, Merle had two constant companions—music and trouble. He became increasingly wild in his hometown of Bakersfield, Calif., after his father, a championship Oklahoma fiddler, died when Merle was 9. A self-taught guitar player, Merle debuted on stage at age 15 with Lefty Frizzell. By age 20, he was sent to San Quentin for burglary.
A seven-day stretch in solitary confinement—for making home brew—turned him around.
“At San Quentin, isolation is right next to death row,” he once said. “I had a chance to think about what I was doing. That was when I decided that when they let me out, I was going to make a line for the door, and I was never coming back!”
He didn’t. He worked odd jobs during the day, and sang in Central Valley bars at night until “Sing a Sad Song” became his first hit in 1964.
His songs made a connection with hardworking people everywhere. The words were picked over and so was Merle, who could occupy all the territory between outlaw and legend, because he was both. As he traveled with his band—longtime intimate friends and family, called The Strangers—he was variously described as loner and outspoken, simple and complex.
“I have had a hard time living down some of the songs I’ve put out,” he said, in reference to such politically charged tunes of the turbulent Vietnam Era as “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
“I’m an entertainer, not a politician,” he said. “I don’t want to be president, governor or sheriff. I just want to be a country singer and live to be over 100 and outlive George Burns.”
Recognition as a living legend is one thing. Getting airplay on the radio is another.
“I Am an Island” is Haggard’s current single from his Curb album, Merle Haggard 1994. He conceded that he made compromises in hopes of getting it played on radio, at a time when “the FM side” is spurning him and his contemporaries in favor of newer artists.
“I still write songs, a few that I’m very proud of, but I don’t know what I’ll do with them if they won’t play me on the FM side.” Ironically, many younger male stars cite Haggard as their major musical influence.
“Merle Haggard is the reason I moved to Nashville,” John Anderson said.
“He has been a tremendous influence on me especially in the honesty of his lyrics,” said Radney Foster, whose version of Merle’s “The Running Kind” was released last week as the first single off the Mama’s Hungry Eyes tribute.
Haggard said he’s gratified that the tribute album, Mama’s Hungry Eyes, is helping such a worthy cause as Second Harvest.
“I’m the kind of a guy who’s a fool to help children,” he told Country Weekly. “If anything outshines the Hall of Fame induction, it’s that this album is helping to see that these children are being fed.”
Topflight stars, including Anderson, Clint Black, Marty Stuart, Emmylou, Diamond Rio, Steve Wariner and Lee Roy Parnell, weigh in with their versions of Merle’s classic songs on Mama’s Hungry Eyes.
What would Merle choose as his own favorites?
“I wrote 1,000 or 1,500 songs before I started keeping them. Ones like ‘Today I Started Loving You Again,’ ‘The Farmer’s Daughter,’ ‘Mama Tried’ and ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ are hit songs to me like they are to you. I’m very proud of them. Also ‘Swinging Doors’ and ‘Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.’
“They’re like children. I have to be around them every night. They are victims of my personality. These songs are almost alive.... When we do those songs onstage, there’s an emotion that flies forth from the audience and hits me in the face.”