From the Vault: Merle Haggard (1994)

Originally published in the April 26, 1994 issue of Country Weekly featuring Reba McEntire on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.

He’s been called the best country singer ever. But if you call him that to his face Merle Haggard shakes his head and says the best darn singer he’s ever heard—in fact the guy he admired most—was Tommy Duncan, a guy most people have forgotten. Merle Haggard’s like that—a man so plain-speaking he seems almost simple. A man who wears his worldwide fame like a new pair of boots—warily.

Unlike the new breed of country slicksters, so manicured and Hollywood-produced, Haggard is just himself. No different, in fact, from the 16-year-old who hunkered down alongside Lefty Frizzell and sang him a couple of Jimmie Rodger’s songs, till Lefty was so impressed, he put Hag on stage.

The rest, as they say, is country music history. “I want the same things now that I wanted when I was 16,” Merle said. “A good guitar and a good woman”. It took a while, but right now Merle has both. “Getting the guitar wasn’t too difficult,” he said. “Because I went out and borrowed the old Jimmie Rodgers guitar out of the Country Music Hall of Fame and played it on “Valentine,” a song off my new album, Merle Haggard 1994.

“That guitar hasn’t been on record since the 1930s, and it really barked. It must have been made especially for Jimmie because it only weighs two pounds, and it’s brittle and it’s loud. It’s easy to see where he got that great tone.”

But getting a woman? That wasn’t nearly so easy. Merle had to take five turns at that, but this time he ain’t gonna quit. “I beat myself up pretty bad about the lack of time I spent with my first family,” he said. “I had four children by my first wife Leona and we were both too young to be parents, so I missed that one. But I’m gonna stick around for this new little family with Theresa Ann. I’m really interested in seeing some of the things I missed.

“My daughter Jenessa has just turned 3 and she thinks her daddy’s the greatest in the world. And I have a little boy that’s one year old. He’s already talking to me on the phone and he’s way ahead of himself. His name is Benion and he’s definitely a talented child. “I’m a real dad now, but that’s why I beat myself up a lot about that first deal. I don’t think I was a good father at all. I wasn’t there. I couldn’t be there.” where he was in the penitentiary—San Quentin, to be exact. Those years of feeling cheated about losing his dad when he was 9 and the struggle against an infinitely grinding poverty, the kind that comes off better in a song than when you live it—had him trying to rob a bar, a screw-up which earned him three head-banging years in prison.

Still it was after that little episode that Merle started singing in dives around Bakersfield, a dusty working man’s town in California where the beer poured like rain on a desert, and the songs wailed into the night, like a dissonant lullaby. “I was a poor child, came from a poor family, but there were certain things we were never short of. I don’t ever remember having to go without a meal. And there were always clean sheets.” From those memories Merle wove hundreds of magical poems, ballads like “Mama Tried,” along with songs that relived his prison days, like “Branded Man” and “Lonesome Fugitive.”

But Merle’s recollections of the past 12 years have been sweeter, giving way to songs like “Valentine.” With over 65 albums, four of them gone gold, Merle’s had a big career, of course. But like another famous American singer, he did it his way. “Fact is, I’m finally enjoying a healthy period of my life. I’m really awake for probably the first time ever. I spent a lot of time partying over the years. The Lord gifted me with a talent, and I think I enjoyed a lot more life than I should have. I could have worked more.

“I could have done a network television show, but I’d go fishing. I think unconsciously I did not want to become any more of a robot than I already was. It’s real easy to become a puppet in this business, and I just refused to do that even if it cost me my career.

“My family and I live on 150 acres on Lake Shasta,” he said. “But there’s not gonna be a great deal left when I die to divide among my heirs because I just never wanted to be wealthy. “I don’t have two cars. I got two Ford pick-ups. I don’t intend to buy a new car ever again in my life.

“I don’t give a damn if I make 50 million dollars, you won’t see me driving a brand new car. Because possessions . . . money . . . that don’t matter to me.

“When I started I didn’t know what I was doing or what I was in for,” he said. “I just knew that I was sure that this was what I wanted to do, and I’m still sure I did the right thing with my life. I’d do it all over again.”

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