Merle Haggard

When Merle Haggard released “Okie from Muskogee” 30 years ago, the song made him a right-wing hero. Issued at the height of the Vietnam War protests, it won him praise from conservatives for the line “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD.”

Haggard always said the hoopla was overplayed, claiming he intended the song as a kind of jest. And, today, this country legend cum rugged individualist says that conservatives—especially the anti-marijuana forces—have gone too far.

“America has sure gone to some sort of a police state in the last 10 years,” says Haggard, who is at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington, Vt., tomorrow and Lowell Memorial Auditorium on Sunday.

He hasn’t played in New England since 1990, mainly because the region used to serve as a connecting stop for his tours of Canada, which he has cut out temporarily. He says he’s sick of the US “zero tolerance” laws, which make reentering the States an indignity.

“If they find a seed of marijuana in your car or bus, they’ll run it all over the news,” says Haggard, speaking from his home in northern California. “I’ve got 30 people working for me. There is liable to be a seed of marijuana, so it makes it very uninviting to go into Canada, knowing that the United States is going to harass you coming back.

“They snatched some buses from people I won’t name, and buses are not cheap,” he adds, referring to the US customs officials. “It costs us seven or eight years of our lives to pay for these buses, and they just take ’em. Like I say, you can’t personally shake people down that work for you. I’m not going to do that. You don’t know who’s doing what and who isn’t, but [the police] come on and this ‘zero tolerance’ thing they’ve got going is really amazing. They’ve got private enterprise building prisons now. It’s scary. It’s overkill.”

Maybe Haggard could do a solo acoustic “unplugged” tour instead.

“That’s not a bad idea. Yeah, they won’t have nothin’ to search,” snaps Haggard, a grizzled 61-year-old (alias “The Hag”) who is loaded with strong opinions and enjoys being cast as a proverbial outsider.

Take his feelings toward the Nashville establishment: Been there, done that. To put it mildly.

“I moved to Nashville for two years—in 1976 and ’77—and my record sales went down to about half what they had been,” says Haggard, who emerged from the same Bakersfield, Calif., scene that spawned Buck Owens. “So I got the hell out of there and my record sales went right back up. It was like living in the middle of a carnival. Hey, I don’t mind coming to work and running the Ferris wheel once in a while, but I don’t want to live right there. That’s kind of the way it is down there. Your work becomes your entirety. I’ve never given my full entire self to this business. I give about half my time. And I’m not going to give any more than that.”

No wonder the Hag is branded a classic loner—an image the public has embraced during a career that has seen an astonishing 63 of his songs in the Top Ten of the country charts. Among his signature, baritone-rich tunes: “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” and “Today I Started Loving You Again.”

“I’ll tell you what the public likes more than anything. It’s the most rare commodity in the world—honesty. You just have to be honest with them and say, ‘Hey, I don’t want to live in Nashville.’ It’s a nice city and has paid tribute to me and I owe it a lot. But I don’t want to live there … I want to make my music on the West Coast.”

Haggard is almost a Paul Bunyan figure in country lore. He was born in Bakersfield and lived in a boxcar where his father, a railroad worker, resided. His father died when Haggard was 9, starting a downhill spiral that led to a crime-dotted youth, including a three-year stint in San Quentin for armed robbery. He was released in the early ’60s and was given a full pardon by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972.

Haggard has been on the road for 38 years with his band, the Strangers, of which only three early members are left: Don Martin, horn, steel player and band leader, Norman Hamlett; and harmony singer, Bonnie Owens.

“All the rest of the band is new,” he says, “and everybody’s younger than me, but that wouldn’t be saying much.”

Haggard has fought many battles in his life, but one that stands out is his fight to use the Strangers in the studio. He stuck with them even though the Nashville way was to make solo acts use so-called “A team” studio players to get a homogenized sound suitable for radio.

“If there’s an Elvis Presley out there today, we wouldn’t even know it. He wouldn’t get a chance to use his own band. They’d run that same damned band in on him,” he says.

Today’s new artists are also “not getting to put out the songs that are the best. The songs have to be of a nature that doesn’t cause someone to look up from their computer, otherwise they won’t be played. So [the music] is being strained and refined and perfected—and there’s nothing more boring than perfection.”

Haggard is likewise angry at the industry’s prejudice against older artists, who are routinely denied airplay. “I think if we had this mentality in charge in the last 100 years, we would have missed some of the greatest performers in the world. What if they did that in classical music? What would we do—make Pavarotti go home?”

Haggard’s son, Noel, is another Nashville refugee. “He went down there … but they wouldn’t let him insert an idea of his own at all. He got disgusted and came home. He’s working here at the ranch,” he says, referring to his citrus ranch.

“I don’t know if Noel is going to do music or not. He’s 35 years old and, of course, he’s going to be over the age curve soon. He’ll be too damned old! And that’s silly. I didn’t even grow up until I was 40 years old. And I surely didn’t mature musically until about that period. It’s a shame that the public is denied mature music.”

Haggard puts the blame on spineless producers and program directors “who know absolutely zero about music. … It’s time to turn the body and fender work back over to the body and fender people.”

To his credit, Haggard is still plugging on. He survived heart surgery two years ago, altered his diet, and feels better than ever. He now has six children, including two (ages 6 and 9) from his current marriage. “It’s just the greatest thing I’ve ever been involved with in my life,” he says. “They say you’ll enjoy kids more when you’re older, and I certainly do.”

In addition, this could be one of his busiest career years. He is preparing a boxed set of the gospel music he’s done through the years. He also has a pay-per-view concert in October timed to coincide with the release of a double CD of 61 of his best-known songs he’s now rerecording for RCA. And he has an autobiography (tentatively titled “The Running Kind”) due this fall as well.

“You’ll be hearing a lot about me in the next few months,” says Haggard, laughing. And you can bet that whatever you hear will bear the same candor that has always marked his work. He knows no other way.

Posted by A. Shapiro
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