Merle Haggard is no stranger to the White House: He was a guest of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who — when he was governor of California — had granted the singer a full pardon for the felonies and misdemeanors that led to three years at San Quentin Prison.
Earlier this month, the 73-year-old singer returned to Washington, this time alongside Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, composer Jerry Herman and dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones to receive the Kennedy Center Honors, a lifetime achievement for the performing arts. (It airs tonight on CBS at 9 p.m. ET.)
In this interview, Haggard reflects on the three-day whirlwind gala, his life after lung cancer, and future plans to record and tour in a new supergroup with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
What was the highlight for the whole thing for you?
I probably enjoyed meeting the presidents, especially Bill [Clinton].
Is he a big fan of yours?
Well he said he was, and he never lied to me [laughs]. It was also nice to meet Obama and find him very different from the media makeout. It's really almost criminal what they do with our President. There seems to be no shame or anything. They call him all kinds of names all day long, saying he's doing certain things that he's not. It's just a big old political game that I don't want to be part of. There are people spending their lives putting him down. I'm sure some of it's true and some of it's not. I was very surprised to find the man very humble and he had a nice handshake. His wife was very cordial to the guests and especially me. They made a special effort to make me feel welcome. It was not at all the way the media described him to be.
What's the biggest lie out there about Obama?
He's not conceited. He's very humble about being the President of the United States, especially in comparison to some presidents we've had who come across like they don't need anybody's help. I think he knows he's in over his head. Anybody with any sense who takes that job and thinks they can handle it must be an idiot.
Did you talk to the President much?
I told him, "You and I have something in common: our wives are both taller than we are." And he said "No! She's got on 3-inch heels! And she is not that tall!" He was like me. He grabbed that real quick.
Did you spend much time mingling with the other honorees?
We had quite a bit of time. There were three events that I attended. Paul was there the whole time. But "Ope" – we got to call Oprah "Ope" – was completely beside herself. I don't think she'd ever been a recipient of much in her life. She reached over to me, leaned over and said, 'You know, we've come the farthest.'
Some people wrote about how they didn't think Oprah should be in there because she didn't write music or isn't an artist.
Some people I think are too critical and don't have not enough intelligence to make that kind of a comment. Who is to say? There's a hundred people, including all of the ex-presidents' wives, that have a say on who is nominated. It's not about who wrote the best song or who the best songwriter was, but who was the best in their field. And television is certainly a modern method of communication that you can't overlook and she's probably the mother figure of that right now. I don't know how anybody can say she wasn't deserving of it.
What was it like hanging out with Paul McCartney?
He's Paul McCartney, man. You can't forget that he wrote those songs. That kept going through my mind: I'm an aspiring songwriter and sat beside the guy that wrote "Yesterday." I recorded that. Some guys are famous for some songs you don't remember, but that's not the case there. When they started "Hey Jude," with this wonderful orchestra, the building came apart. Everybody in the audience was singing it. It was a chiller.
Quite a few people showed up to honor you. Kris Kristofferson sang "Silver Wings" Willie and Sheryl Crow sang "Today I Started Loving You Again," Vince Gill and Brad Paisley sang "Workin' Man's Blues." Jamey Johnson did "Ramblin' Fever." What was it like to sit there and just watch these people play your songs that you wrote over the years?
Well, it's the ultimate. You're hittin' around the right spot, it's great, and probably couldn't be topped. And I enjoyed watching Vince Gill give Brad Paisley a lesson – he took a course on "Workin' Man Blues." But Brad is so hot and so good.
Did you have a good chance to catch up with old friends Willie and Kris?
We got to eat a little something together. We didn't know what the hell this food was, but we thought it was funny.
Last summer you told us you and Willie are planning to record an album of new material together.
I'm glad you brought that up. We talked about doing that together, but with the presence of Kris, we talked about the three of us doing it. I'm sure if we're healthy and live to do it, we'll do it. We thought about the title: the Musketeers. You know, because there's the three of us. We'll come up with some little way of describing ourselves I guess and put it together into a show.
You had part of your lung removed in 2008 due to cancer and had to cancel a few shows back in September for health reasons. How are you feeling now?
Well, it took a long time to get over that surgery. It took the best part of two years and I'm just now feeling like I might be able to reach over and pick up a garbage can with the right arm. They removed an upper lobe of my right lung, and they had to go in underneath my arm. It's quite painful and irritating to have that. You know how tender that is underneath your arm. To have that heal up, it takes a couple of good years. I think I'm all right now. I went down and had a checkup just prior to going back for this little gig and I was clear. I didn't have anything, and that's an awful good sign.