One evening around sunset, Merle Haggard was leaning against his silver tour bus, the Santa Fe Super Chief, before a show at the Crazy Horse Saloon on the dusty fringes of Orange County, California. He stared off grimly at the brown, rolling hills that looked as if they might stretch all the way to the coastline, but which Merle pointed out had been carved into housing subdivisions and a massive energy plant just over the ridge. "Ain't nothin' pure left in this country," he said. It was the first thing Merle ever said to me.
It was 2004, and Merle was 66. He looked tired, shrunken. His blue jeans hung too low, and his face was lined with creases, etched in deep ravines across his forehead and in spiderweb patterns through his cheeks. He said he had a stomachache, and he climbed onto his bus to look for a clove of garlic. "If the garlic doesn't work for you," he said, "you better go to the hospital."
Though he'd recently released two of his finest late-career albums, If I Could Only Fly and Roots, Volume 1, which helped re-connect Haggard to a young audience, he said he felt marginalized, out of step. He said his body hurt, from his neck all the way to his right foot, probably from playing the fiddle. He sat in a beige velour chair that served as his tour-bus throne, and smoked weed from a curved wooden pipe as he roamed freely among many topics: the dangers of caffeine ("Far worse than cocaine, look it up, it's proven!"), extraterrestrials ("We ain't the smartest bear in the woods, anyone with a brain can see that"), and what he considered the terrible decline of our country. "Used to be a wide-open place," he said. "A 24/7 country. You could fly from Bakersfield to Memphis, and the whole country would be lit up. Now, it's dark. No one comes out of their house. Everyone's scared. What happened?"
A club waitress boarded the bus and told Haggard that the Crazy Horse itself would be closing down soon. "Well, hell," Merle said with a grimace. "Looks like we've closed another beer joint."
Then he added, more sadly, "I feel like it's about time for me to head to the barn."
Merle never headed for the barn. Even when he made rumblings about retiring, his actions pointed in the opposite direction – right up to the end. In 2010, two years after being diagnosed with lung cancer, he built an elaborate studio on his ranch, with pristine acoustics and top-end analog equipment, where he recorded two of his final albums and planned to host concerts he would broadcast on the Internet. Shortly before he died, Merle put three new tour buses into service, including a $1 million custom model built to his own meticulous specifications. He also planned to turn an old bus into a rolling diner.
As I got to spend time with Merle at home and on tour during his last decade, I grew accustomed to his unpredictable rhythms. He could be pensive, paranoid and full of mischievous fun – often before he'd finished his pancakes. His mind was always spinning – testing theories, asking questions, checking facts. He was not a fan of what he called "established thinking"; one idea did not build on the last to form a linear worldview. He only seemed concerned with the truth as he saw it at any particular moment. He was a truth-seeker, not a truth-teller.
Onstage, he'd sometimes launch into a song he'd written on the bus that day, with no rehearsal or warning to his band, the Strangers. Whenever he had the chance, he would rather make mistakes trying something new than go through the motions of playing the same song the same way twice.
He was like that in conversation, too. He couldn't help but dig deep, search for new meanings, even when the discoveries were painful. One night, Merle took me for a ride in his golf cart and stopped on a ridge overlooking his 200-acre property. He told me he recently realized that he'd spent most of his life on the run "from the authorities and mostly from myself," and he choked up when he said his biggest ambition now was to "stand still and face where I'm at.
"I'm a nomad," he said. "But this property and my family, that's what it really comes down to for me now. They need me, and I hope I have a little time to enjoy them."
If Merle's thinking sometimes carried a conspiratorial edge, it was also often prophetic. "I'm here to tell you, boys, things aren't going well in this country and they're getting worse," he shouted one day on his tour bus, as we passed toxic burning rice fields on the highway outside Sacramento. "I'm not sure we can turn it around. I got to think that one of these days somebody's going to fight back. I don't know how and I don't know when, but it's coming, and when it does, all hell is going to break loose. I'm talking like I mean it, 'cause I'm scared.
"The spirit of the American people is the only thing that can save America," he said. "Not the spirit of America, the spirit of the American people. If we rise up and take this country back, as we've done in the past – that's our only hope."
Haggard had undergone surgery not long before to remove the tumor on his lung, and he told me he'd been more scared than he let on. "You know, you always think you're going to be the one that does all right. I was supposed to be on the table by 7:30 that morning, but it was 9:30 before they started because I had a lot of questions. The guy's hands were awful big, the main surgeon. I said, 'Don't you have to make a bigger hole than most guys?' He said, 'No, I'm not going in there with my hands.' But it's quite a procedure. They have to come in through the back, break out a couple of bars, and you don't get those back.
"I was probably ready to go, you know. I'd done about everything I knew how to do. But to get an extension is always nice."
As Merle talked, his saxophonist, Don Markham, who has played in the Strangers since 1969, sat nearby. A mutual friend had died the day before. "Don said, 'You know, we're gonna be doing that in the next few years,'" Merle recounted, with a barking laugh. "I thought about that all night, Don. I thought you could have said the next few hours and probably been right."
"Doin' what?" Markham replied. "I don't remember what I said."
"Dyin'!" Merle shouted. "Everybody's doin' it!"
One of the last times I visited merle was just before Christmas in 2012, at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, where he had booked two concerts to close out the year. He was lounging in a two-story suite, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a gold-plated staircase. His fox terrier, Fanny, the same breed he'd kept since he was a kid, sat on his lap as he picked tracks for a duet album to be sold at Cracker Barrel. As usual, Merle had plans stacked up: an album of Dylan covers, a possible biopic ("Something honest, none of that corny shit"), and one thing I'd never heard him talk about before – a vacation.
"I've been everywhere and seen nothing," he said. "I'd like to just travel for three or four months and not have to be anywhere. There's a little money in the bank, and my children are grown. But there's always something nagging at me to keep working, keep writing. I've become more critical as I've gotten older. As you learn more about your trade, you scrutinize closer. It's like you take more time with the putt – you think, 'Whatever I do, it's gonna be there forever.'
"As long as I live, I will be making a new album. Whenever I say I don't want to make a new album, I might feel that way at the moment, but it's not really true. I'm having a fluent period, and that's what I need to be happy. If I can write, I can keep happy."
When we had first met, in '04 at the Crazy Horse, I came away mystified and disappointed – Merle seemed angry, distracted, more interested in talking about UFOs and libertarian politics than about his music career. Another meeting, on his tour bus outside Radio City Music Hall, was similarly perplexing, so I decided not to pursue the piece I had been planning for Rolling Stone. But Merle did: He called one day, out of the blue, and asked what happened to his story. I told him that to get it done I'd like to visit him at home, and that he'd have to be willing to open up about his experience in prison and other painful subjects. He said talking about his past "just rips me up all over again." But he agreed, so I spent three days with Merle in Palo Cedro, California, at the northern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. I went back twice more, and the man I encountered at home was far different than the guy who railed at the world when I'd met him on the road. He was easygoing, receptive, engaged – there was no subject he would not discuss at length, and he invited me into his private life. We listened to Bob Wills albums while his kids did their homework in the kitchen, and we ate purple-hull peas and peppers from his garden.
The ranch was rugged and majestic, with a shimmering lake and mountain peaks rising in the distance, but Merle's home was modest – a one-story stucco bungalow, comfortable but shabby, where he would sit in an overstuffed chair with the TV on mute, often picking at his guitar. It was not the kind of place you might expect to find one of the most famous living country stars, but it was exactly where Merle wanted to be.
I don't know if Merle was ever totally at peace in his life, but after six decades on the run it was obvious that he was home.