One of country music’s biggest bigger than life singer/songrwriters has died. Merle Haggard died April 6, 2016. He was also born on this date in 1937. He was 79.
Haggard was scheduled to play the Event Center at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races, in Charles Town, West Virginia, on May 13 and 14. Refunds are available to ticket holders of either show.
Back in 2010, his show at The Great Frederick Fair was canceled due to a respiratory infection. Haggard, a lung cancer survivor, died from pneumonia.
I had the awesome fortune to do a phone interview with Haggard, but it didn’t publish in print because of the cancellation (the late George Jones took the stage instead). These interviews usually last about 15 minutes, but he just kept talking and answering questions in casual conversation for about 45 minutes that day.
Though the story didn’t publish in the FNP, it did run in Three Chords and the Truth. Here’s the story that never ran, and the rest of the story from 2010.
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It’s a wonderful world for Merle Haggard.
Indeed. The 73-year-old country music legend celebrated his 18th wedding anniversary with wife Theresa on Sept. 11, will be recognized by the Academy of Country Music next week in Nashville, and will receive a Kennedy Center Honors Award in December.
“It was certainly a surprise in our camp,” said Haggard of the Kennedy Center Honors. “We were just blown back by that.
“I’ve seen my youngest children turn 18 and 21,” said Haggard in a phone interview from his home near Mount Shasta, Calif. Daughter Jenessa is studying to be a chef. Youngest son Ben, who turns 18 in December, graduated from high school and tours with his father, said Haggard, who has six children that he “owns up to.”
His family life with fifth wife Theresa, Jenessa and Ben is the subject of “Down at the End of the Road,” a Haggard song on his album released earlier this year, “I Am What I Am.”
“(Jenessa and Ben) don’t reassemble any children you read about in the tabloids,” said a proud Haggard. “(Theresa and I) have not been perfect in our lives, but they’ve decided to go for the best things.”
Ben is lead guitarist in Haggard’s band. “He plays better than his dad, but doesn’t know as much as his dad,” said Haggard with a laugh. “I think (playing guitar) was deeply imprinted in his fingerprints and bloodline. It was something he had to do, like me.”
Haggard’s wife also joins him on some shows and on the album for a duet of the bouncy “Live and Love Always.”
The two met 24 years ago. “She came to a concert and my guitar player was dating her — until I saw her,” Haggard said.
The country music legend’s first studio album in three years, “I Am What I Am,” was released earlier this year. “It’s doing well,” said Haggard. “It didn’t go out and go to No. 1, but it did go out and chart.”
You won’t find the spitfire of songs like “Okie from Muskogee” on this album but you will find the deceptively simple lyrics that have made “The Hag” a legend. Tucked in them, though with subtlety, are a few jabs. Haggard sings of all the really good things he’s seen go away, including “I’ve seen our greatest leaders break the people’s heart, I’ve seen most of what we got have a whole lot better day.”
Several of the songs are from the perspective of a man looking in the mirror, reflecting on a life that took some hard turns.
“How Did You Find Me Here?” was co-written with his wife. “It’s about waking up at 65 years old and realizing I was in the midst of raising a young family with this young beautiful wife,” he said. “It was like” as the song says, “what a surprise. How did you find me here?”
In “Pretty When It’s New,” Haggard sings about the sweetness of new love. “That’s a piece of absolute truth there,” he said.
“Oil Tanker Train” recalls a childhood memory living in a converted boxcar and watching the oil tankers pass by. “That was a big part of my life, watching that thing go by every morning and afternoon,” said Haggard, who grew up in Oildale, north of Bakersfield, Calif.
“I guess that kind of stuck in my brain,” he said of the train. So did a little bit of what his “mama tried” to instill in him about religion. In the album’s title track, he sings “I believe Jesus is God … I’m just a seeker, I’m just a sinner and I’ll be what I am.”
“It gave me a chance to mention Jesus in public,” he said of the lyrics.
His father died when Haggard was 9 years old. “I thought he was THE guy. He was healthy, but in a matter of six days he died of a stroke,” said Haggard. After that, the young Haggard lived a reckless youth in and out of trouble, reform school and jail.
“We were close,” he said of his dad. “I kind of went crazy then for a while and didn’t want to do what I was supposed to do.” All those experiences, though, filled him with a deep well from which to draw subject material for songs.
“I’m not stupid. I know I’ve had an unusual life,” he said. “I was raised in a very humble situation, to say the least.”
Haggard said the gift of songwriting has been a real blessing.
Everybody wants to write a song sometime in their life. I think everyone that has that dream,” he said. “But to have it come to pass and look at what has occurred is amazing.”
He got his first guitar from his older brother. “He was working at a service station and a guy traded his guitar for some gas,” said Haggard.
A self-taught guitarist, his mother did buy him about nine violin lessons where Haggard learned “a little bit of the basics.” He plays fiddle with Scott Joss on “Live and Love Always,” which is his favorite song on the album. “We’re going to start using it as an opener soon.”
Son Ben, he said, “is our shining example of the future. “(He’s) taking our craft and shaping it for the people that want to hear it now,” said Haggard. “I’m proud to say he’s following in my footprint.
“I’m a happy gentleman.”
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The following appeared in Three Chords and the Truth Sept. 17, 2010:
OK, this was off the charts amazing — a phone interview with Merle Haggard. Unfortunately, the story didn’t run in the print edition, but I did post it yesterday at Three Chords and the Truth. Here is the rest of my interview with the country music legend.
Haggard’s youngest son Ben is lead guitarist in the band and his father, Merle, said the youngster is following in his footsteps as a country artist.
I asked Merle what he thinks about:
The state of country music today
“I’ve got a new song — “Too Much Boogie Woogie and Not Enough Connie Smith,” he laughed. “That’s my take on it.
“That kind of says it for me. I love what the kids are doing. They’re all good. The all look good. What’s missing for me is the subject — that’s missing from the music,” he said, adding that “youngsters” like Alan Jackson, “get it.”
“Country music is really struggling right now. There needs to emerge a Johnny Cash from the corners. It would be a good time for a hero to raise his head.”
How about the state of the country?
“We’re in desperate need of some ideas. I don’t think we’re making much progress. (Obama) needs to pull a rabbit out of a hat.
“We’re in a serious economic slump or whatever word you want to call it. It’s not been like this since I’ve been grown.
Hard work, 24/7, got the country to be No. 1 in the world, he said, and if the nation is to get back to that spot we’ve got to do that again.
Merle at home
When he’s not touring or recording, he likes to bass fish and does a lot of walking.”Just try to stay healthy,” he said. “My mind is active with writing and publishing and all the things I do. I’m busy 24/7 on my own.”
The state of Merle Haggard?
“I’m enjoying my life very much right now. I came through the cancer thing and survived that. I’ve seen my youngest children turn 18 and 21 and have a gorgeous wife.”
“We came into our union and she was not involved in music. She didn’t really play any instruments. I consider her my student. I taught her to sing harmony and to write songs.”
Merle has an older sister and brother. His brother died in 1996 but his sister will be 90 on Jan. 28. “She’s still in full control and still holds a good argument with you.”
Both were born with the ability to play music “but didn’t have the drive I had,” he said of his sibling.
While pursuing his music career, Merle held a list of jobs, which no doubt contributed to his being referred to as the “poet of the common man.” Among the jobs he’s worked are in a warehouse, loading box cars, potato farms in California, vineyards and peach orchards, a truck driver and “just old hard work,” he said. “Good hard work that tuckers a 18- or 19-year-old out should be required,” he said. “It might keep more young people out of trouble.”
But the most interesting job, he said, was doing oil exploration for a geophysical company. “I learned to work with dynamite, shooting test holes.”
Get well soon Merle!