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Sky's The Limit

He has endured a prison sentence, survived failed marriages and weathered financial hard times. He has been a rambunctious young rebel, an ex-con, a grandpa and a superstar.

Story by Wendy Newcomer--Photo by One Shot Photography

He'll own up to all of that - but just don't remind him he's not as youthful as he used to be.

"I hate it - hate it," he declares. "It's just part of the ride, I guess. As long as I've got my health, I'll put up with the wrinkles, the shrinkage of the body, the aches and the damn pains. I'll put up with all of that. But it's not glamourous to actually reduce and go away, to become dust again right before your very eyes."

Merle laughs at the weight of his words. His trademark frankness and conviction are once again in their full glory on his latest album, If I Could Only Fly. The Hag extols the values of settling down, needing family love and not taking chances anymore.

But this is not the music of a rebel cat who has been declawed, as the album's first song, "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," proves:

Watching while some old friends do a line
Holding back the want to in
my own addicted mind
Wishin' it was still the thing even I could do
Wishin' all these old things were new

"I miss the freedom that goes with the old days," admits Merle. "Just like I said in the song - I'm holding back the want to in my own addicted mind. That means I've made a choice not to do it [cocaine]. But I still think we should have the choice. And the song is from that viewpoint."

There are a variety of personal viewpoints on If I Could Only Fly. Another song deals with his wife's 1999 miscarriage.

"I have a young family," explains Merle. "I have a lovely wife, Theresa. I have a little boy, seven, named Bennie. My little girl, Jenessa, is 10. We thought we had a third child coming a year ago. The family made the mistake of naming the baby. Then one day, Theresa went for a checkup and the child didn't have a heartbeat."

He pauses. "It was a real trying period for the family," reveals Merle. "Theresa had to go through a little rehabilitation for her own sanity. She wanted me to write her a lullaby. I kept trying to write one but nothing happened.

"One day she was coming home from the rehabilitation place and called me. She said, 'Don't forget to think about a lullaby.' As she hung up, that phrase stuck with me. I said, 'That's really it,' - you have to think about a lullaby when something like this occurs in your life, and go on with things. Watch the butterflies, smell the roses."

So Merle wrote the song he ended up calling "(Think About A) Lullaby."

Merle's dedication to his family is in sharp contrast to the "rambling fever" he had in younger days. He sings of that devotion in the song "Proud To Be Your Old Man," a love song he penned for Theresa.

"She gave me what I needed," says Merle of his companion of 14 years (and wife of seven). "She offered a family, and gave me one, when that wasn't what I thought I wanted to do with my life. But between her and the children, they've structured a beautiful home and the warmth of a close-knit family as a pillow for me in my life, a place for me to go when this music thing nearly consumes me. They compete for time with me, and I compete for time to be with them."

Merle took the time to write a confessional song to Jenessa about the three years he spent in San Quentin for burglary.

"I thought, 'I wonder what I'll say one day when she asks me about things of that nature. How could I justify myself in her eyes?' I wrote 'I'm Still Your Daddy' about it all."

It's clear Merle is incredibly proud of Jenessa and Bennie, who already appears to be following in his dad's footsteps. "I think it's almost certain," Merle notes with a grin. "He's already playing drums and fiddle. And he's fooling around with the guitar and singing real good."

It's also clear Merle is enjoying fatherhood late in life - but he good-naturedly confesses it's tough to keep up with his children. "When you're young and you swing a kid up over your shoulders, that's fine. But now I'm built like grandpa Atlas instead of Charles Atlas."

But Merle hopes age is not a factor when it comes to his music.

"I want this album to be accepted by young and old," he says. "I'm just trying to make good music and give people a little insight into bits and pieces of my own life. I hope people will hold it to their hearts - because it came from mine."