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Merle Haggard: ‘Mama’s Still Prayin’

The "Hag" talks about his new bluegrass project.

Any country music fan would jump at the chance to look into Merle Haggard’s eyes, say hello, spend some time with the Country Music Hall of Famer and tell his friends later, “Hey, I shook Hag’s hand!” Most will never get the opportunity.

But they can do what just may be the next best thing. They can listen to his new Merle Haggard: The Bluegrass Sessions CD ( he also has a new three-CD Legends of American Music: Merle Haggard-The Original Outlaw box set) and hear one of the most recognizable voices in any genre reveal truth after truth—mostly about his own amazing life, but invariably about the world around him. Here’s some of what Merle had to say during a recent interview with CW’s David Scarlett.

CW: Was it a chore to wade through your thousands of tunes to find the ones you wanted to do?

Merle: Well, I just took the best songs I had at the moment. You know, I write songs all the time. And took the best ones I had for the condition and went down and recorded ‘em.

CW: Do you have a pretty good recollection of all the songs you’ve written? Or do they all start to run together in your mind?

Merle: Well, every once in a while somebody’ll play me somethin’ I don’t remember I wrote.

CW: I love ”Learnin’ to Live with Myself.” Have you had times in your life where you’ve had a hard time livin’ with yourself?

Merle: I think that people, if they’re honest with themselves, that is the hardest thing to do. You get off by yourself and sum the day up, and just be totally disappointed with what you did with yourself. And, if most people are honest, they will be disappointed. Because we hardly ever think of anybody but ourself.

CW: And the ones who still have a chance of turnin’ it around may be the ones who do feel quilty...the ones who don’t may already be too far gone.

Merle: I think so.

CW: I know you’ve done “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” thousands of times. I love this version. Do you like hearin’ it with the mandolin and the dobro?

Merle: Oh yeah. “Big City” is the same way.

CW: Do you need to change things up occasionally, do things a little differently, to keep it fresh and interesting for you?

Merle: I’ve started to do that. I’ve started to do songs purposely, with unrecognizable arrangements on stage, just to see if it’s the song or if it’s the arrangement. And the arrangement means nothing. The people like the song, and I can do “Big City” any way I want to, and people like it. The same with “Mama Tried” and the rest of ‘em.

I got out of the bus the other day, and there was a black couple standin’ there and they had a little girl in their arms. And when I stepped out of the bus, the little girl said, “Is that the man that sings ‘Big City’?’ “ She didn’t know my name, didn’t care about my name. All she wanted to know...was that the guy that sang the song she liked. And I think that’s the way the majority of people are. The song is what matters, and the singer is way down the list of priority of being important.

For more on Merle, check out his story in the Dec. 17 issue of Country Weekly.