Merle Haggard Returns to Road After Health Scare: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'

Country legend details 11-day hospital stay, new music and why Trump is "dealing from a strange deck"

"I have no idea how I could do it without my family," says Merle Haggard, reflecting on his recent bout with pneumonia. Credit: Daniel DeSlover/Zuma

Merle Haggard is cautiously optimistic as he prepares for his first tour since he was forced to cancel several dates late last year as he suffered from double pneumonia. "I'm really lucky to be alive," Haggard says, calling from his home in Northern California. "It could've gone in another direction had I messed around a little more. I'm just hoping I'm fully able." 

Haggard, 78, kicks off his tour tomorrow (February 2nd) in Riverside, California, just weeks after spending 11 days at California's Eisenhower Medical Center, plus more time recovering in another facility. He's feeling considerably better than he was in the several months leading up to his hospital stay. "I was coughing all the time. I thought, 'These damned old buildings have got something in them.' I just didn't recognize it as what it was." So he kept playing shows. "I always felt better after I'd work because of the exercise that it gave to my lungs. When I play, I feel better when I come off." 

Haggard pushed through the pain until a December 2nd gig in Palm Desert, California, when he couldn't make it to the stage. "It was like suffocating, like having a pillow in your face," he says. "It's a terrible thing; people die from it all the time." He cancelled the show and headed to the hospital the next day. "I had a double case of pneumonia about the size of grapefruit on each side," he says. "I had a pain that went all the way around from my belly button all the way around to my back. I asked the doctor, 'What was that pain?' He said, 'It was death.'"

Doctors made sure to keep Haggard moving. "They want to get you up and run you on a footrace first day you're there. They won't let you rest. That's because that's what you have to do: get over it. They gave me some steroids one time and I got up and I was giving judo lessons." He says the hospital staff "treated me like family. They allowed me to put my bus in their complex." Haggard's son Ben was in charge of keeping fans updated on social media. "He's kept everybody abreast of what was going on. Of course, there has been a lot of interest, a lot of prayers for me to be thinking about."

Haggard's tour was initially supposed to begin Jan 30th in New Mexico, but he cancelled the first two dates due to worries about the high elevation. Still, he's hard at work rehearsing and planning to record new material with his band. "We're working on a new album with me and Willie again," he says, referring to a follow up to last year's Django and Jimmie. "We're having such good luck. Our names together seem to be magic. Our first show together for the tour went on sale in Springfield and sold out in 10 minutes. The records are selling and it's a hard time to sell records! So we can't deny the success of it all."

As he recovers, Haggard, a news junkie, has been watching Donald Trump's campaign with amusement and concern. "He's not a politician. I don't think he understands the way things work in Washington, that's what worries me about him. I don't think he realizes he can't just tell somebody to do something and have it done, you know. I think he's dealing from a strange deck."

Haggard lets out a big cackle, sounding ready to get back to work. "I'm still on top of things," he says. "I'm doing a lot of writing and I'm just proud to be alive and hope that people realize that. I really sincerely thank everybody for the prayers.

"It becomes more precious, I think, as time goes by," he adds of performing. "My wife is taking care of me. I've lost a lot of weight. I'm going to appear different onstage, I'm afraid. But she's fed me well and stayed on top of me like a great nurse. I have no idea how I could do it without my family. I have to give them all the thanks for it."