The Fighter: The Life & Times of Merle Haggard

He was raised in a boxcar and turned 21 in San Quentin. Then he became one of country music's greatest stars. The life and times of an American outlaw

Merle Haggard
Steve Jennings/WireImage
Merle Haggard performs in concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa, California.
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Some after noons, when his kids aren't around and he doesn't feel like practicing with his band, Merle Haggard will load a pipe, climb onto his John Deere golf cart and take a ride around his property, 200 acres of rugged California ranch land at the northern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. He'll check on projects that are always under way but never seem to get finished – the mending of a fence in his sheep pen; planting redwood trees; the construction of a waterfall – or he might park on a wooden bridge that crosses the lake where he fishes for bass and catfish, and smoke some weed.

On a perfect summer evening, as the electric-blue sky fades to glowing orange, Haggard's golf cart strains and lurches up a steep incline on the north perimeter of his property. The hillside is covered in waist-high yellow grass and twisted manzanita. Haggard, coughing frequently and speaking with a low, syrupy twang, points out that the grass looks soft but is actually razor-sharp and full of rattlesnakes, some as big around as his calf – better than any fence to keep out trespassers.

Just below the crest of the hill, Haggard pulls into a clearing where he's thinking about building a new house – a place the 72-year-old country singer would like to pass on to his family after he's gone. "I've lived in houseboats and motor homes and band houses and cabins," he says. "But I'd like to build me a home with some sanity, where it's totally green. I think that's a necessary project for me right now." Below us, workers haul lumber and pour concrete at construction sites. I ask Haggard if he takes part in the work. "I need to keep my hands tender," he says. "I'm the ideas man."

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Haggard fishes a plastic M&M container of weed from the pocket of his camouflage shirt, shrinks low on the seat and lights a black glass pipe. As he smokes, two fawns wander by, not intimidated by our presence. He watches them silently, his head cocked in concentration. "Residents," he says finally, as they disappear into the trees.

Haggard bought this land in 1980. He was 43 years old, twice divorced and 14 years into an amazing streak of 26 Number One country singles, with another dozen to come in the next decade. Haggard's early hits – "The Fugitive," "Branded Man," "Mama Tried," "Hungry Eyes," "Workin' Man Blues," "Okie From Muskogee," "Sing Me Back Home" – form the backbone of one of the greatest repertoires in all of American music, plain-spoken songs populated by the kinds of working people Haggard grew up with: farmers, hobos, convicts, widows, musicians and drunks.

Mostly, though, Haggard's early songs narrate the difficult circumstances of his own life: The son of Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma to the San Joaquin Valley, Haggard lost his father at age nine, hopped his first train a year later, and spent his teenage years in and out of juvenile institutions, military schools and, eventually, San Quentin. "Johnny Cash once told me, 'Hag, you're the guy people think I am,'" Haggard says. He spent nearly half of his first 21 years "running away or behind bars," he says. "I would've become a lifetime criminal if music hadn't saved my ass."

Haggard's songs look on his early life with a mixture of pride and regret, and they are sung in a warm, rangy baritone, strong but hinting at a deeper vulnerability, with little of the cornball sentimentality that characterized much 1960s country. "Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets," says Bob Dylan. "Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the Fifties, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock & roll star, one of the best. I'm sorta glad he didn't do it, though, because then he'd be on the oldies circuit singing his rock & roll hits instead of becoming the Merle Haggard we all know and love."

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Haggard's property is several miles off the highway, at the end of a curving blacktop that passes ranch-style houses with ornate gates and horses grazing under giant oak trees. Haggard once owned 900 acres back here, but he was forced to sell most of it, along with his entire publishing catalog, when he declared bankruptcy in 1993 following a string of failed business ventures and costly divorces. In the 1970s, before the interstate was built, this was about as isolated a place as you could find in California. Now the land is being sold off in five-acre parcels to weekend cowboys and wealthy retirees. "I'm sure the minute I go, they'll subdivide my place, too," Haggard says. "I'm trying to prevent it by making this a game refuge – I don't want this to become a trailer camp."

The thing that bothers Haggard most is the recklessness and greed of the local ranchers, whom he says run too many cattle back here, choking with waste the creek that runs through his property. "There's certain times of day that the cowboys like to send cow turds down the river," he says. "Them fuckers piss me off. If you gotta mess up the ecology of the world in order to raise a bunch of cows, well, eat somethin' else. I'm not a fan of the cowboys."

There are other problems, too. Haggard's ranch sits at the edge of California's Emerald Triangle, the country's most fertile pot-growing region, and during harvest season DEA and state agents run military-style raids in the mountains. Recently, a helicopter flew over low enough that Haggard could see the agents' faces. "Black helicopter. Guy hanging out the side with an automatic weapon," he says, his voice rising. "Dressed all in black. All in black. What does that mean?"

Haggard's reaction was to run into the yard, wave his arms and thrust his hips – "the big 'fuck you,'" he says.

"It's like, 'Hey, do you guys realize that I'm down here and I'm responsible for protecting my family?'" he continues, shouting now. "'I'm not running drugs. I'm a 70-year-old goddamn Hall of Fame songwriter.'"

Haggard fires up the cart, and we bounce along a dusty trail down the hill. He points out the black metal gate at the entrance to the ranch, near a street sign that says THERESA LANE, named for his fifth wife, a statuesque blonde 23 years younger than he is. "No one can get in here except through that one road," he says, "and you can see them coming around the bend – no one can surprise you.

"Johnny Cash used to really like it here a lot," he goes on. "He loved the privacy. He never spent too much time here, though. He was always in a hurry. I could never understand that. I'd always say, 'What's the hurry, Cash?' I don't like to hurry."

The property has several dwellings, including an elegant Spanish-style house where the Haggards lived until rampant mold forced them out. That house, with its mountain views and swimming pool, sits empty now. The family – Merle, Theresa and their two kids, Jenessa, 19, and Benion, 16 – moved into a modest stucco bungalow where Haggard's drummer, Biff Adam, lived for many years, at a time when Haggard envisioned the ranch as a home base for his band, the Strangers.

The house has a sunny stained-glass foyer decorated with Haggard's gold records, an island kitchen and a cluttered living room that's dominated by an enormous TV, usually muted on CNN or the Bloomberg network. Haggard's business is run from a single phone line in a corner of the living room, and Jenessa and Ben can sometimes be found doing homework at the dining table a few feet from where Haggard is practicing with his band.

Outside the kitchen window is a vegetable garden where the Haggards grow much of their own food – tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, peppers and all kinds of beans. Haggard, who stopped eating beef more than 20 years ago, loves beans. A plaque above the stove says THE BEAN MAN – his nickname. "We grow purple peas in the garden," says Theresa. "It's a specialty. He'll call his sister and say, 'I want to get that taste that Mom had.' She says, 'Well, all we had back then was coffee.' 'Oh.' Then he'll work all day long on a pot of beans, getting it right. Anything he cooks is great, because it's always different. It's like his music: It's never the same."

"He's always got that pot of beans goin', exactly like he had it goin' 30 years ago," says Hank Williams Jr., an old pal. "The last time I went out to his ranch, I stayed with him about three days. I'll never forget it. He drove up in a Mercedes-Benz with a cap on his head that said ASSHOLE. He said, 'I've got one for you, too.'"

Haggard parks the golf cart in the carport and stomps, with a kind of stiff-legged shuffle, across the lawn to the front door, avoiding the stone path completely. Two wiry old fox terriers, Mabel and three-legged Blackie – the same breed Haggard has kept since he was a boy – sneak in the house behind him. Theresa asks Merle if he wants to eat inside or at the picnic table. Haggard is still riled about the pot raids and isn't listening. "What is happening to this country?" he says. "I've never been frightened, but now I feel fear creeping up my back, and what little I have, I may have to fight for – literally take up arms."

Theresa doesn't like when Merle talks this way – she worries he'll make himself and their family a target. "What am I supposed to do?" Haggard asks. "Something's seriously wrong – and someone better say something before it's too late. People don't seem to realize it. I see it."

Jenessa brings Merle a cup of tea made from hyssop, an herb that calms the nerves and that he believes is good for his heart. Haggard had heart surgery in 1997: He no longer drinks coffee or smokes cigarettes, and except for a couple of extended benders in the Eighties, he's never been much of a drinker. "What's going to be left worth saving?" he goes on. "I'm afraid that one day we're going to look up and it's all going to be gone. It's the most depressing damn thing you can imagine: to feel everything slipping away." Haggard sits in a beat-up leather swivel chair. Everything he needs is within reach: his Rose acoustic guitar, the phone, remote control, reading glasses, a Bible, bottles of herbs and prescription medications, and his M&M canister, black pipe and two Bic lighters. In the windowsill is a model-train car and a framed fax sent by Keith Richards after he and Haggard performed at a 2004 Willie Nelson birthday bash in L.A. "If you ever need an extra hand," Richards scrawled, "call on me."

Richards says he's been a fan of Haggard's since the Sixties, but he'd met him only once or twice before they played together at the Nelson event. "This cat was next to me with a Stetson and a gray beard, and he's picking this Fender like a motherfucker," Richards recalls. "And I'm thinking, 'Who do I know who plays like that?' Halfway through the first song, I looked up to see who it is, and I go, 'Merle, right?' And he says, 'Yup. Call me Hag.'" Richards laughs. "He's such a neat player, so economical and so unflash, which I admire."

On a shelf next to the TV is a Macintosh amplifier, a stack of old country LPs and a plaque that reads NOTHING'S EASY. This is pretty much Haggard's credo. "I've got a lot of things to be proud of," he says. "But it's not easy. It never became easy. Everything that ever happened that was good, I look back and say, 'Goddamn it, it took me 40 fuckin' years to do that.'"

In his songs, Haggard often portrays himself as a free-spirited rambler, but in life he's weighed down by a complicated personality – intelligent, ornery, contrary, impulsive, always curious, with a deep worrying streak. "I've never seen anybody who can take a light load and make it a major burden the way Merle can," his manager, Fuzzy Owen, has said. "Merle's a mood man," observes his pianist, Doug Colosio. "He lives in the moment. You never know where things are going – just that it's probably not somewhere you've been before."

Being around Haggard, you get accustomed to his unpredictable rhythms: He might be quiet for long stretches, then his mood will brighten, and he'll launch into ideas for a new album, or his plan to start a business selling catfish from his lake, or a joke – often dirty – that's punctuated by a staccato, lascivious-sounding laugh that causes his whole body to shake.

Frequently, Haggard veers into tirades about what's wrong with the country. You can hear his mind working, stretching, as he spins out theories, trying them on to see if they stick. "I don't believe there's a dime's worth of difference between Democrats and Republicans," he told me a few months before the 2008 presidential election. "When we get someone new in the White House, don't you suppose they'd set him down there the first morning in the Oval Office and explain the rules? Give him orders about what to do, and if he didn't do 'em, they'd kill his kids? That's what I think. I think there's a No Shit Day, when they sit the guy down and he says, 'No shit.' And they say, 'Yeah, and it's this way, too.' 'No shit.' 'And we'll kill your fuckin' kids if you don't like it.' I think we're there."

Haggard launches a new tour two days later. There's a large desk calendar on the floor, with X's marking the dates: 31 shows in 38 days, casinos and state fairs and dinner theaters. Haggard stares silently at the calendar. "How am I gonna do this?" he says finally. "I don't want to die out there, and I don't want to get to the point where no one shows up. I want to quit with some dignity."

In 2008, Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer, and he underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor in November. He lost the upper lobe of his right lung – enough to end the singing career of a much younger man. "I was probably more scared than I let on," he says. "There was a good possibility it was over. When it hits your lungs, it's usually everywhere else. A guy's gotta think – realistically. I was just hoping I'd made the right spiritual preparations."

Six weeks after surgery, Haggard played two hometown shows in Bakersfield – "I needed that as a personal test" – and was back in the studio recording a new batch of songs, including one called "Hopes Are High," which he wrote two days before Obama's inauguration. "It was both about me and about the country getting a second chance," he says.

In addition to playing hundreds of his own shows, Haggard has in the past few years toured with Willie Nelson, George Jones, Dylan and the Rolling Stones. In June, he played Bonnaroo for the first time. "One time, somebody asked Fuzz, 'How did you get into country music?'" Haggard says. "And Fuzz said, 'How the fuck do you get out of it? Ah ha hah hah hah ha ha! And that's really the way it is. I don't want to go on this tour. But I'll get out there and at about the 12th or 15th day, I'll start to play good again. When I get done, I'll come home, and it'll be the damnedest, most difficult change you can imagine going through – it'll just rip me apart."

As we sit and talk, Haggard's daughter Kelli – the third of four children from his first marriage to teenage sweetheart Leona Hobbs – stops by to visit. She's a pretty, freckled woman in her 40s, dressed in overalls and smothering her half brother Ben with kisses. She mentions that when she was a kid, Haggard threw her tape of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock out the car window because he didn't like the cursing. "I never understood using that kind of language onstage," Haggard acknowledges solemnly.

Haggard's marriage to Hobbs was tumultuous and often violent. "It was horrible for a child to witness," Haggard's oldest daughter, Dana, has said. "I seen blood, I seen terrible things." Haggard was touring and rarely home, and the kids barely knew their dad. "Most of the time we called him 'Hey,'" Kelli has said.

Haggard carries a lot of guilt for his absence. He keeps his older kids close now – his son Noel, a country singer, opens many of Haggard's shows and operates the tele-prompter during his dad's set; Kelli and Dana live nearby; his other son, Marty, is a Christian country singer based outside Nashville. Haggard has 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, which he calls a "blessing" but also describes as a burden. "It's a strange feeling to be the one in charge of what some people might call a dynasty," he says. "They expect me to have answers, even when I don't."

This afternoon, Kelli is trying to persuade her father to retire. "Daddy, we worry about you," she says. "You don't have to tour – you can sing for your grandkids." Haggard frowns, sinks low in his chair. After a long silence, he says, "I think you do what you can do as long as you can. Then you weigh up and see what you've got."

Kelli reminds her dad she's come to borrow money. Haggard reaches into the pocket of his Wranglers and counts out a stack of bills. "How can I quit?" he says. "I have an expensive lifestyle."

Dinner is served at a picnic table on the front lawn, next to a patch of rosemary and black-eyed Susans. Theresa says grace and passes around plates of peppers, salad greens, fried okra and purple-hull peas, all grown in the garden. Theresa and Jenessa chat about pickling vegetables, while Ben, an expert fisherman, tells me about one Thanksgiving when the family pulled a 45-pound salmon out of the creek. Merle sits quietly, chewing slowly, lost in thought. He perks up when Theresa tells the story of a wild turkey that lived on the ranch and took a liking to Merle. They named her Hannah, and she used to ride around on the back of Merle's tractor. "One time Hank Jr. called up," Merle says, "and he said, 'Hey, you got any turkeys out there?' I said, 'Yeah! I can see 'em walking by outside the window.' He said, 'Well, what are you doing, man, get your gun!' I told him I don't want to shoot them – they're my friends! Ah hah hah!"

After dinner, Haggard drives me back to my hotel in his white Hummer, improvising a zigzagging route across dusty farm roads and interstate overpasses. A CD of songs by Cole Porter, one of Haggard's favorite composers, plays quietly on the stereo. "I can get depressed real easy," he says. "My life is not as smooth as it might appear. There are secrets that I wish there weren't, and the glue – I'm the glue, I guess, that keeps it all from falling apart. When I die, that property will die. Nobody will be there for the grandkids. The whole family will fall apart. And it's very depressing to realize that I've got this goddamn obligation of keeping the whole thing together."

He's quiet for a while.

"The glue," he says. "There might be a song there."

Haggard's best songs these days deal with two things: the decline of the country and his own personal decline. "Those are the two most disturbing things in my life," he says, "my age and the aging country, and to not see more sincerity of interest in what's happening. It don't seem like anybody cares."

Haggard has made 11 albums in the past decade, everything from jazz standards and bluegrass to honky-tonk classics, an album of duets with George Jones and three discs of new material. Some of his best new songs, like "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," "I Hate to See It Go" and the heartbreaking "Learning to Live With Myself," show a vulnerability and a self-awareness that's come with age; others express his outrage. Tracks like "Rebuild America First," "What Happened?" "Where's All the Freedom," "Haggard (Like I've Never Been Before)" and "I've Seen It Go Away" describe a country that has sold out its ideals and abandoned civil liberties, and where people have become timid and small-minded. "I wish I could say something in eight lines that would turn the entire country's head," Haggard says. "If there's an ambition left in my body, it's to do that: to write eight lines that will put the condition of the country foremost again before it's too late."

The next morning at Lulu's, a diner in Redding where Haggard often eats breakfast, he is still trying to explain what motivates him to keep going. "I heard a song that changed my way of thinking," he says. The song, Kris Kristofferson's "Final Attraction," describes watching Willie Nelson sing and muses that some divine purpose must keep him going night after night. "For Hank Williams, go break a heart," Kristofferson sings. "And Waylon Jennings, go break a heart."

"It turned me around," Haggard says. "Suddenly, I felt like those guys who all meant something to me would be terribly disappointed in me if I didn't continue."

Haggard feels the loss of so many friends and musical peers. "It's getting pretty lonely," he admits. Most of all, he misses Johnny Cash. "We was more like brothers than the brothers we had," Haggard says. "We understood each other's problems. He was the guy every macho guy in the world wanted to be, and he wasn't happy with himself at all. I'm a lot like that."

Before Cash died, in 2003, Haggard dressed in a white doctor's coat and snuck into the ICU to see his friend one last time. "Cash said, What are you doing here, Haggard?' I said, 'I'm here because I love you.'" Haggard's blue eyes cloud over as he says this, but he doesn't attempt to hide his tears. He stares directly at me, elbows on the table, until the feeling passes.

"When Cash died," Haggard says, "I think a lot of faces turned to look at me, and looked at Willie. We sort of moved up a notch."

Like Cash, who made some of his greatest music in the last decade of his life, Haggard is also in the midst of a late period resurgence few would have expected a dozen years ago, when he was broke and playing second-rate casinos and county fairs. But while Cash handed over the reins of his career to producer Rick Rubin, Haggard refuses to cede control to anyone. He still has the same manager, Fuzzy Owen, he started with in 1961, and he still runs his business in what could be described as an impulsive, haphazard manner.

"I've shot myself in the foot plenty," Haggard acknowledges. "I don't even have to look back at my career to see that – I can look down at my foot. But I'm just not one to give a lot of thought to the brilliant ways to make money. I guess you'd call me a lazy thinker in that particular area, but I think more about good songs and catching a big bass than I do about how to make money. I can sit down and spend two, three weeks and make enough money for you and me both for our entire lifetimes. I'm not stupid. But I just don't find all that much satisfaction with what the money might bring. I'd just rather do what I want to do."

Haggard sees his maverick approach as a form of self-preservation. "If you compare my life to some other people who were ready to do anything they were asked to do, look where they are now," he says. "You take people who did anything to get on the Grand Ole Opry. They thought the Grand Ole Opry was the pinnacle of their life. Well, it was." Recently, a man he describes as "a billionaire" approached with a plan to kick Haggard's career into high gear. "He has it already figured out. He wants me to do three albums, then do my 75th birthday at Carnegie Hall. But I've already been to Carnegie Hall, and he don't even know that. Fuck him. I'd rather die my own man, and if I become more successful toward the end, it'll be because of the work, the songs – not the presentation. I guess I'm stubborn. I'm gonna just do it my way, that's all."

When he's not on the road, Haggard likes to wake up early, drink some herbal tea and play old records, often those of the Texas-swing bandleader Bob Wills. Wills relocated from Texas to California after World War II, and his live radio broadcasts from Bakersfield's Beardsley Ballroom made him a hero to transplanted Southerners. From the first time he heard Wills, Haggard wrote in his 1981 autobiography, Sing Me Back Home, "that beautiful fiddle . . . was piercing little holes right through my head." Haggard modeled his own band, the Strangers, after the hillbilly-jazz sound of Wills' Texas Playboys, and he hired several before and after Wills died in 1975.

One of Haggard's proudest achievements is his 1970 album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills). Haggard spent four months intensively learning to play fiddle, practicing Wills' solos all night on the tour bus. "He'd be listening over and over to those tapes," says Haggard's drummer, Biff Adam. "Sometimes we'd have to go back in the bunks and cover up our heads."

Haggard got to know his idol in the last years of his life. "It was like a Godfather thing," Haggard says. "I was his boy. Once he patted me on the cheek, and he said, 'I say a lot of prayers for you.'"

Listening this morning to Wills' version of "Sweet Jennie Lee" – its jumping beat punctuated by Wills' trademark "aaaaah-haaaah" hollers – Haggard taps one cream loafer and rolls his shoulders in rhythm, smiling broadly and calling out the name of each soloist. Later, I ask what he still discovers in this music he first heard more than 50 years ago. "You know, America was so gorgeous back then," he says. "The trees were still up here in the north, and the Colorado River still had water. Everything hadn't been invented. These songs are like turning on a direct message from the past. It takes me back to the way I felt when I was 16 years old. It felt real good."

Haggard is deeply nostalgic, and he often writes songs about America in some idealized past, when he believes hard work, honesty and individualism defined the national character. These traits are the same ones he ascribes to his father, James Haggard, a carpenter for the Santa Fe railroad who died of a stroke when Merle was nine. "The only thing I knew that my dad hated for sure was a liar," Haggard wrote in his second autobiography, 1999's My House of Memories. "I don't remember any sermons on the subject, but it was something I always knew. Everyone knew his word was good. Ever since my early childhood, I have found more importance in the trait of honesty than maybe most children."

Haggard views his father's death as the defining event in his life. "I was around 30 years old before I began to realize that things would have been different, maybe better, if he'd lived," he says over breakfast. "I'm sure that I was probably much more street-wise on account of his death – probably wound up in prison because of it."

The Haggards migrated to California from Checotah, Oklahoma, in 1935, after their barn burned down in a suspicious fire. Though they were far from wealthy, Haggard points out that they did not arrive with mattresses strapped to the roof of the car. "The Grapes of Wrath was not our story," he says. "We did not yield to the Depression."

Okies were discouraged from settling within Bakersfield city limits, so the Haggards moved to a migrant settlement across the Kern River called Oildale. James Haggard paid $500 for an old railroad boxcar, which he converted into a kind of early mobile home. The boxcar was set on a small plot of land next to some abandoned oil wells. "We lived like the Beverly Hillbillies," Haggard has said.

Merle's brother, Lowell, and his sister, Lillian, were teenagers when his mother, Flossie, found out she was pregnant with Merle. "She sort of was embarrassed about it," he says. "The children were nearly up and gone. They were going to move into this new little place. And then I came along."

Merle was born on April 6th, 1937. "When he was an infant – and I mean an infant," Lillian once recalled, "Mother would turn the radio on, and when he heard what was then called 'Western music' his little feet would start keeping rhythm with the beat. We would change the station – nothing would happen. Put it back, the feet start moving again." Merle's other childhood fascination was trains. The Southern Pacific ran less than a hundred yards from the Haggards' home, and a little farther away Merle could hear the all-night passenger trains chugging to and from Los Angeles. "There's a couple lines in 'Mama Tried' that are actually factual," he says. "'The first thing I remember knowing was the lonesome whistle blowing.' At night, you could hear the Southern Pacific, that passenger train, rolling by. Before I'd go to sleep I would hear that damn train headed out of town with all those people on it going somewhere. It was intriguing, to say the least."

Lying in bed at night, Merle also heard his parents arguing about whether to stay in California or go back home. "My daddy was a rambler, and he was never happy in California," Haggard says. "Almost every night, he'd say, 'Mom, I've been studying. I think we ought to sell out and go back to Okie.'"

I mention that this sounds a lot like Merle: always looking for somewhere else to be. 'Yeah, he was probably a lot like me and me like him," he says. "Probably genetic. Probably came with the package.

"I've always had the desire to go, to move," he says, "and I probably will until the day I die. I'm a nomad."

By the time Merle's father died, Lillian and Lowell were out of the house, and Flossie took a job as a bookkeeper, leaving Merle with little adult supervision. When he was 10, Merle and a friend packed pillowcases with food and hopped their first freight train. They got caught late that night walking along the tracks in Fresno, a hundred miles away. When Merle's mother came to pick him up, she asked Merle why he'd ridden without a ticket he'd been given a free pass as the child of a Santa Fe employee. "Mama'd missed the point completely," Haggard wrote. "I had had my first taste of adventure, and now I wanted more."

His sister believes Merle acted out of misplaced guilt over his father's death. "He somehow thought it was his fault," Lillian has said. "We could have gotten help for him, but we didn't realize what was going on in his head."

This began a pattern of what Haggard calls "illegal motion" – ditching school, hopping trains, getting caught by truancy officers and being sent to a series of increasingly strict institutions. By Haggard's estimate, he was locked up 17 times, in places like the California Youth Authority, the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys and the Preston School of Industry, one of the oldest and most infamous reform schools in the country. (Haggard has a small PSI tattoo still visible on his left wrist.) The first time he saw Cool Hand Luke, years later, he said, "It seemed like a documentary of my young life." The institutions were brutal: He was beaten with a rake, made to run miles in boots that didn't fit and brutalized by older inmates. Haggard took pleasure in outwitting the sadistic guards, and he found a way to escape from every single place he was locked up. Asked what motivated him, he shrugs. "I don't like to be told what to do."

Behind bars, he learned to be a criminal. "It was the cells I was in that corrupted me," he says. "My idols changed during those years, from Jimmie Rodgers to Bonnie and Clyde. Hell, people were after me, running me down like I was a criminal; All I wanted to do was buck hay and go to work in the oil fields. My dad was dead and my mother was old, and I just wanted to live and work. And them sumbitches wouldn't let me do it. I understand why now – the simple law of truancy. But it was hard to understand when I was young."

Haggard still gets visibly nervous around police officers. "I'll never get over that," he says. Twice when I'm with him he notices a group of cops approaching, puts his hands behind his back, and tells me he's going to turn himself in. "For what?" I asked the first time. "I'm a pot smoker," he says. "I'm sure they'll find something they can arrest me for. That's the kind of country this is now. I'm serious. It's right on the verge of Nazism."

When Merle was 11, his brother, Lowell, gave him a used Bronson guitar. "For a boy who was shy," Haggard wrote, "that guitar gave me a new and exciting way of saying something." Lefty Frizzell's "I Love You a Thousand Ways" became a hit a couple of years later, and Merle learned to perfectly replicate the pleading phrasing of Frizzell's hillbilly tenor. Haggard loved the "brilliance and clarity" of Frizzell's music, and he studied Lefty's easy charisma onstage, which came less naturally to Haggard. "For three or four years I didn't sing anything but Lefty Frizzell songs," he wrote, "and then because Lefty was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers I learned to imitate him, too."

When Merle was 14, he and a friend bought tickets to see Frizzell perform at the Rainbow Gardens in Bakersfield. They got so drunk on Burgie beer before the show that they passed out on the front lawn and missed the first set. Two years later, when Frizzell returned to Bakersfield, Haggard snuck backstage. Someone told Frizzell that Haggard could impersonate him, so Frizzell gave him an audition. Frizzell was so bowled over he refused to go on unless Haggard performed first. Haggard sang two Jimmie Rodgers songs and Hank Williams' 'You Win Again," and decided then and there that he wanted to be a professional country singer. "It's like the guy who catches his first fish," Haggard says. "I was really the one who was hooked."

In 1956, when he was 19, Haggard married his 16-year-old girlfriend, Leona Hobbs, a beautiful, dark-haired girl he met at a local hamburger stand. Haggard has called their relationship one of "the great battles in history" – he recounts nearly strangling her in one fight shortly before their 1965 split.

Through most of his teens, Haggard never saw himself as a real criminal, just a misguided guy who got into bad jams. In Sing Me Back Home, he points out that often when he'd steal a car, he'd return it cleaned up, with gas in the tank. But with his new wife and no steady income, his criminal pursuits got more serious. He forged a check in Arizona, robbed a California gas station and broke into safes. On the day his first daughter, Dana, was born, Haggard, then 19, was in jail for car theft.

In 1957, Haggard and a friend were home drinking wine when they launched a plan to rob a cafe owned by an acquaintance of Merle's. With Leona and infant Dana wrapped in a blanket in the backseat, Haggard drove up to the back door of the cafe and started to pick the lock. Haggard was so drunk he thought it was three in the morning – but it was really 10 p.m. and the cafe was still open. The owner came out back, confused. "Why don't you boys come around to the front door?" he said. Haggard took off, but he got caught with his headlights off half a block away. Haggard escaped jail the next day. He was recaptured at his brother's house the following evening, with a bottle of whiskey in his hand, and returned to custody, where he was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.

In San Quentin, Haggard got caught for being drunk on beer he brewed in his cell and spent seven days in solitary confinement, with just a pair of pajama pants, a Bible and a mattress that was taken away every morning at 5 a.m. During his confinement, Haggard struck up a conversation through the air vents with convicted rapist Caryl Chessman, whose case was at the center of a battle over the death penalty in the U.S. Supreme Court. Chessman's execution partly inspired one of Haggard's greatest songs, "Sing Me Back Home." Haggard says that week in solitary was the turning point in his life. "I thought, 'You might better change your locality and get into another area of life, because this is pretty dangerous right here,'" he says. In 1959, he got a glimpse of what that new area might be when Johnny Cash came to perform at San Quentin on New Year's Day. "I didn't care for his music before that – I thought it was corny," Haggard says. "He couldn't sing a lick that day, but he had the crowd right in the palm of his hand. I became a Johnny Cash fan that day."

Several years later, Haggard ran into Cash in the men's room before a TV appearance in Chicago in 1963. As they stood at the urinal, Cash asked if they'd met before. Haggard said no but that he was in the audience at San Quentin in 1959: "I told him, 'You came in there, left, and my life changed.'"

By the time Haggard was paroled from San Quentin, in 1960, the Bakersfield scene was swinging with a new style of country music – harder and rowdier than Nashville, driven by Telecaster guitars, electric bass and rockabilly beats. "Nashville was more fruit-jar drinkers, blue-grass-country than California," says Fuzzy Owen, who played steel guitar in local clubs and had a record label, Tally Records, with his cousin Lewis Talley. "We had a different atmosphere in our music. We wanted a brighter sound, and we was kind of wild." Wynn Stewart and Buck Owens were the biggest Bakersfield stars (the Beatles covered Owens' 1963 hit "Act Naturally" on Help!), and Haggard found work as a fillin guitarist at local clubs like High-Pockets, the Clover Club and the Blackboard, which he calls "the epitome of the country redneck honky-tonk." In 1960, Haggard took second place in a local talent show and landed a job playing at the Lucky Spot, along with Fuzzy Owen. "When Merle come off the stage, he come back and introduced himself, and I said, 'Boy, that's the best damn singing I ever heard,'" says Owen. "He said, Well, if you like it so much, why don't you record me?'"

The two cut Haggard's composition "Skid Row," with one of Owen's tunes, "Singin' My Heart Out," as the B side. Owen pressed 200 copies, and the record got some local airplay. Owen told Haggard to call him when he had some new material. Soon after, Haggard landed a gig as the bass player for Wynn Stewart's band in Las Vegas. He earned $225 a week but spent far more on booze and gambling and often had to call his mother to wire him more money.

After a year in Vegas, Haggard went home broke, with his marriage on the rocks. Before he left, he asked Stewart if he could record a song the star had recently written, "Sing a Sad Song." "He had it all tailored for himself," says Haggard, "ready to record. It was a big thing of him to let me have that song, and I'll always be thankful." The single, released on Owen's Tally label, hit Number 19 on the Billboard country charts. It was followed by a Johnny Cash-style novelty song, "Sam Hill," and a duet with Bonnie Owens (who had previously been married to Buck Owens and would later marry Haggard), "Just Between the Two of Us," both of which also made the charts. Haggard's next single, "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," written by California songwriter Liz Anderson, cracked the Top 10 and helped Haggard get a contract with Capitol Records.

From early in his career, Haggard was more interested in being a musician than an entertainer, rarely bantering or even addressing the crowd. This caused trouble in some places. "People had a hard time accepting Merle Haggard," Jack McFadden, Buck Owens' manager, once said. "I got a call from a guy in Minneapolis one morning . . . He said, '[Merle] walks out on the stage, picks up his guitar, he don't even say hello, he don't say nothin'. And I've never seen anybody do that before.' I said, 'Well, how's he singing?' He said, 'Oh, he sounds great.' I said, Well, you don't have anything to bitch about.'"

In 1966, Haggard had his first Number One song with Anderson's "The Fugitive." The song was about a TV show popular at the time, but it hinted at Haggard's story: "I raised a lot of Cain back in my younger days/While Mama used to pray my crops would fail/Now I'm a hunted fugitive with just two ways/Outrun the law or spend my life in jail."

Though he sang about outlaws, Haggard was terrified to let people know about his own criminal past. "The last thing in the world I wanted to do," he says, "was walk up like David Allan Coe and say, 'Hey, I've been to prison, look at me.'"

"The amazing thing about Merle," says Kristofferson, "is that he's never said, 'I'm the real thing, and these other guys are just going through the motions.'"

It was Cash who eventually persuaded Haggard to talk about his past on Cash's TV show in 1969: "He told me, 'They're going to find out anyway. If you own up to it, you'll be a hero.'"

As Haggard began to write about the circumstances of his life in songs like "Mama Tried," "Hungry Eyes" and "Workin' Man Blues" (which he says was his attempt to create a defining song, like Cash had done with "Folsom Prison Blues"), he came to be viewed as a rebel icon and folk hero, an inheritor of the traditions of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. The Grateful Dead named their 1970 album Workingman's Dead in tribute to Haggard, and the Rolling Stones were influenced by Haggard, most directly on 1968's Beggars Banquet. "I was definitely listening to Merle by then," Keith Richards says, "and when you're a songwriter and musician, what goes in your ear tends to come out of your fingers."

But if Haggard started out as a hero to the hippies, that changed with one song: 1969's "Okie From Muskogee." Released three weeks after Woodstock, the song stood up for small-town values, baiting longhairs and war protesters in lines like "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD/ We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin' right and bein' free."

"Okie" became Haggard's biggest hit and earned him entertainer of the year from the Country Music Association. Haggard was invited to play Pat Nixon's birthday party at the White House (which he struggled through with a raging hangover). In 1972, he was granted an official pardon by California governor Ronald Reagan.

Haggard has always wavered on how seriously he intended "Okie." Soon after its release, he wrote a followup, "Somewhere in Between," which tried to spell out his political position more precisely, but the song was never released. (It is now available on the Bear Family box set Merle Haggard: The Studio Recordings 1969-1976) Haggard still struggles with how to explain "Okie." "The reason I wrote it was because I was dumb as a rock," he told a crowd recently. Then, confusingly, he added, "Another reason is it needed to be written."

Kristofferson, who as a young songwriter in Nashville idolized Haggard as "the closest thing to Hank Williams walking the streets," took to performing a left-wing parody of "Okie." "I remember saying at the time, 'Maybe that's the only bad song he ever wrote,'" Kristofferson says. "I was wrong. That song is saying, 'I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,' and coming from his background in California, that's like saying, 'I'm black and I'm proud.'"

Bob Dylan sees it another way. "I always thought everybody got 'Okie From Muskogee' wrong," he says. "It's one of the funniest satires ever. If Randy Newman would have written and sung it, nobody would have thought twice."

"Okie" made Haggard the most successful country artist of the early 1970s, but he resented being made into a political symbol. "I've never been a Republican, I've never been a Democrat, and I've never voted," he says. "I've never brought that up before – you're the first one to know that."

Just as he resented being made a political symbol, Haggard ran away from being a star. For his follow-up to "Okie," Haggard wanted to release "Irma Jackson," a tortured song about interracial romance (not a popular subject at country radio at the time). Capitol released the jingoistic "The Fightin' Side of Me" instead. Not long after, Haggard was invited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, which would have put him in front of the biggest audience of his career, but he ditched rehearsals because he thought the skit designed for his segment made him appear "fruity."

"When you say, 'Who's the great California songwriter?' people say, 'Brian Wilson,'" says California guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin. "And he is, for a particular California. But Merle is the voice of another California."

Alvin singles out "Kern River" – about a girl drowning in the treacherous waters that separated Bakersfield from the Okie settlements – as one of the great evocations of place and class in the Golden State. "It's amazingly deep and complicated," he says. "I hear a lot of California in those two and a half minutes." Dylan loves "Kern River" too, but for other reasons. "Sometimes you forget about how much naturalborn heartbreak there is in a Merle Haggard song, because of all the boomtown oil-well Dust Bowl honky-tonk imagery of his music," he says. "I mean, 'Kern River' is a beautiful lament, but let's not forget it's about his girlfriend dying."

In 1970, Haggard built a mansion on the Kern River, where he lived with his second wife, Bonnie Owens, and he bought a cabin up at Lake Shasta, which he'd first seen out the window of a train when he ran away from home as a teenager. He says he realized he was a celebrity one day in the early Seventies when he was shopping at Nudie's, the Hollywood Western-wear boutique: "Both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart came up and told me how much they admired me."

Haggard drove Cadillac Eldorados and wore ostrich boots and bought several planes, which he piloted himself on late-night fishing expeditions and Vegas gambling binges. "People are still paying for the fun we had in the Seventies," he says.

"One night I was in bed and the phone rang," recalls Strangers drummer Biff Adam, Haggard's longtime aide-de-camp. "It was Merle calling from Lake Shasta, and he said, 'Hey, there's a bear up here trying to break in my cabin. Will you go out to the ranch and get my 30-30, and fly it up here?' I said, 'Merle, you don't want to kill that bear.' He said, 'No, no, I just want to scare him.' I said, 'OK.' I go out and get the rifle, get the plane out of the hangar, I'm on the runway ready to take off, and the guy in the tower said, 'Hey, Biff. Hag just called. He said don't worry, they've made friends with that bear, they fed him. He said, 'You can go back to bed.'"

Flying a Cessna 206 one night out of Vandenberg Air Force Base near Santa Barbara, Haggard noticed strange lights above the plane. "It looked like a big searchlight coming from behind us, and it lit up the whole cockpit," Haggard says. "The pilot called the control tower at Vandenberg and said, What'd you do, shoot a rocket at us?' He said, 'What you talking about?' 'Well, we saw these bright lights up here over the top of us.' 'Well, it didn't come from here.'"

Haggard came to believe the light was from a UFO, and it sparked a lifelong curiosity about extraterrestrial life. (In 2003, he started the Merle Haggard UFO Music Fest in Roswell, New Mexico, near the site of the alleged UFO landing in 1947. A guitar pick from the festival is buried in Johnny Cash's coffin.)

"You'd have to be crazy to believe there's not life out there," Haggard says. "People say, 'If we find life, then we'll know that there's life everywhere.' Bullshit. We know it now if you have a brain. I think the government is extremely puzzled, and they're aware that we're not the smartest bear in the woods. There's some other intelligence around that's observing our progress. Who knows, I mean, this may be an experiment. This planet. The whole gamut may be an experiment being conducted by some superior race."

The hits slowed down in the 1980s, but the party revved up. After splitting with his third wife, country singer Leona Williams, Haggard moved onto a houseboat on Lake Shasta. In 1983, he bought a stake in the Silverthorn Resort, a marina with a cafe, bait shop and nightclub. He hosted wet-T-shirt contests, slept all day and fished at night. "I had my toothbrush tied to the boat and let it dangle in the water," Haggard wrote in My House of Memories. "We drank cayenne-pepper drinks and wore very little clothes . . . There were lots of drugs, women, good friends, good music and fun."

Around this time, Haggard and his buddy Willie Nelson recorded Pancho and Lefty, a laid-back album about boozing, chasing girls and skipping out on responsibilities to go fishing – with a hint of the fallout to come. "We were living pretty hard in that time period," says Nelson. The album's finest track, a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," was cut after four in the morning. Haggard had already gone to bed, Nelson says, but they needed him for the final verse. "We went over to the condo, woke up of Merle and said, 'It's your turn.'"

Haggard's verse on "Pancho and Lefty" is one of his greatest performances – strong, unsentimental, yet conveying all the tragedy of the lyrics about the inevitable bad end that can come from a life of rambling. "Merle is a genial old boy," says Nelson. "He did it about half in his sleep, but Hag sings pretty good in his sleep."

Haggard's mother, Flossie, died in 1984, and his close friend Lewis Talley died two years later, while having sex with a woman on Haggard's boat. Haggard married a waitress named Debbie Parret in 1985, but it didn't take. "I was partyin' pretty hard. I'd canceled all my dates, and I was in heavy mourning. And I was probably smoking pot, smoking Camels and drinking George Dickel – we did that for about five months. It was an isolated time when I really lost it for a while. Losing my best friend, and bad love affairs, you know. And spending way too much money."

Haggard met his current wife, Theresa, during those wild times. She was 26 years old, newly divorced, and one night her mother persuaded her to come see Haggard perform at Silverthorn, even though she was more of a ZZ Top fan. After the show, Theresa met Haggard's guitarist, Clint Strong, and the two went back to Strong's room. But Haggard kept calling, inviting them to his boat. "Finally," Theresa says, "Clint goes, 'Merle wants us to come over, but I have to tell you one thing: Watch out for that guy.'"

The party was in full swing, Theresa remembers. "Merle was sitting in the corner. I locked eyes with him, and I could feel my face just turn beet-red." Strong invited Theresa to come to the show in Vegas the next night. After the gig, Haggard asked Strong to go to the bus and get a guitar. "He said, 'I'll take her up to the room, and we'll meet you up there,'" Theresa says. When Strong returned with the guitar, Haggard wouldn't let him in. "There's bangin' on the door, and it's Clint," Theresa says. "And Merle says, 'Get the fuck out of here! She's my woman now. You don't know how to treat a woman. Get the hell out of here, or I'm going to fire your ass.' I went on a month tour with him, and we were pretty much together."

Theresa didn't believe she could have kids, so when she got pregnant in 1989, she says, "It was a blessing." They named their daughter Jenessa – the name came to Haggard in a dream – and moved off the houseboat to the ranch full time. "We got worried the baby might fall overboard," Theresa says. "So Merle fixed up a cabin at the end of the property, and we moved in after he brought me home from the hospital."

Three years later, Theresa gave birth to Benion, named after Benny Binion, the colorful, criminal owner of the Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas whom Haggard says was like a father to him. The same day Benion was born, Haggard was served with papers at the hospital claiming he owed creditors $14 million. "Once again, I was paying a high price for cheap thrills and bad decisions," he wrote in My House of Memories. "And I was dunned at one of the most memorable moments in my life."

Despite his new family, the early 1990s was the darkest period of Haggard's career. He is unclear about exactly what happened to all his money, but he alludes to corrupt business managers and lawyers, bad decisions made under the influence of various substances, and conspiracies. "It was overwhelming," he says. "I was almost 60 years old, had one child and another just born – they kept me from going crazy, kept me from killing a few people. There were a couple of people didn't know how close they were. There was people wanting to do it for me. And all I'd had to do was wink – it was that close."

Two of Haggard's overlooked records from this period – with the uninspired titles 1994 and 1996 – tell much of the story. The production is hokey, but the best, songs are heartbreaking: After all the difficult circumstances Haggard had overcome in his life, he sounds as if he's finally been beaten. "In my next life," he sings, "I want to be your hero, something better than I turned out to be." And in "Troubadour," "I'll always be a minor-leaguer, probably never get no bigger/I just love to play my old guitar."

If his 1990s albums were commercial duds, they paved the way for Haggard's re-emergence in this decade, beginning with the 2000 album If I Could Only Fly. "Merle's very emotional," says Theresa, sitting under an umbrella on the front patio one afternoon. "He takes everything so seriously, whether it's something on the news or a new song that just comes out. He's a real busy man in his mind – I'm 23 years younger than him, and I cannot keep up. I try to get him to slow down a little."

In addition to helping Haggard quit caffeine, red meat and cigarettes, Theresa introduced him to a regimen of herbs and supplements, and got him doing yoga. "He's a very good yogi. The first time we did it, he said, 'This stuff is like a high!'"

"He's such a thinker," she continues, "and yoga is kind of nonthinking. It does him so much good to not think. He asked me, 'Why would you want to not think?' I said, 'Well, you might want to give your mind a rest.'"

The Strangers are the longest-running, most exciting band in country music, a wiry, daredevil outfit that specializes in a swinging hybrid of country and jazz. Haggard formed the Strangers (named for his first hit) in 1965. Three of its members – Biff Adam, steel-guitar player Norm Hamlet and horn man Don Markham – have been in the group for more than 35 years.

The Strangers don't operate like most bands. Haggard does not hold formal rehearsals – the entire group will likely not be in a room together until soundcheck at the first show on a tour. He doesn't prepare set lists, either – no one knows what song is coming until Haggard starts to play it. "Merle likes to keep you guessing," says Adam. "Nobody ever knows who is going to take the next turnaround until Merle points at you, and it's 'Go!' When you play with Merle, you are never gawking at the good-looking girls. You can't." Three Strangers – musical director Scott Joss, who plays fiddle and guitar; pianist Doug Colosio; and bassist Kevin Williams – whom Haggard calls "the Three Musketeers," live nearby, and some afternoons Haggard pays the guys $50 to come by to jam for a couple of hours. Today, they set up in Haggard's crowded living room: Williams on a stool against the fireplace; Joss next to the TV on a chair from the dining table; Colosio wedged in behind the couch, his keyboard hidden from view so it looks like he's playing the back of the sofa.

The guys are on call whenever Haggard feels like practicing or recording; their job description includes missing dinners at home, canceling vacations and adapting to any new musical circumstance that might arise. "Whatever way the wind blows in his mind, that's the way he goes," says Joss. "Sometimes we don't all understand where he's going, but that's the joy of it. He's willing to take the chance and see where it takes him."

Today Haggard is wearing a long-sleeve gray T-shirt under a camouflage jacket, blue jeans that hang loose on his skinny legs and cream-colored loafers. An identical pair of loafers sits on the bookshelf behind him. The group warms up with old favorites: Rodgers' "Blue Yodel #9," "Stardust," which Haggard considers one of the best songs ever written, and "Corrine, Corrina." When Haggard sings, he uses his whole body – his right leg shakes, his shoulders pull from side to side, his neck stretches as he reaches to hit the notes. His voice may not be as forceful as when he was younger, but it's subtler, more elegant. "Merle is one of the great interpreters of song," says singer Peter Wolf, who recently recorded a duet with Haggard for his own new album. He says the experience was "not unlike being there with Ray Charles or Sinatra. You hear that Sinatra had a way of bringing out the story in the lyrics, but I didn't realize how true that was until Merle comes in and does this song, and I just heard it in a whole new way."

Haggard is also an underrated, inventive guitar player. Today, he picks out single-note solos and riffs that at times sound like they're about to collapse onto each other, then resolve in some unusual, beautiful way. After a while he finds a Mexican-sounding chord progression he likes, and repeats it until he finds a line to go with it. "She came in with her own fandango," he tries, rifling off an old Wills line. "Da da da dee do do do da da dee deh . . . "

Theresa, in the kitchen fixing a bacon sandwich for Ben, notices Haggard's up to something, and rushes in to add her own line: "She danced to Grappelli and Django?" "Write it down!" shouts Haggard, then adds, "She did a fine waltz and a tango!" "She had her own kind of lingo?" says Theresa.

The song goes around the room, with everyone kicking in lines, until Haggard gives up after a few minutes and starts to play Hank Snow's "I'm Moving On," another of his favorites. "Hank was a small guy," Haggard says. "But that ol boy had a 10-inch dick. There are photos."

Soon, Haggard wants to listen to demos from a new album he's working on that the guys have been casually referring to as "the rock & roll record."

"I've played this more than I've played any of my records in 20 years," he says. One tune, called "It's Gonna Be Me," stands out with its heavy bass line and lyrics that stake Haggard's claim to singing about what's wrong with the country today.

"Who's gonna say the people's mad?" he growls. "Who's gonna say the music's bad?/ Who's gonna say it's lost its soul?/Who's gonna get the shysters told?/It's gonna be me." "Not sure where it came from," he says. "Anger. I'm speaking for the simple majority – not necessarily the 'silent majority' but the people that mind their business and don't bitch about nothing. I do all the bitching for 'em."

Haggard invited me back to the ranch for the final sessions for the rock & roll album. But when I arrive, the first thing I notice is a van loading out equipment from the studio. The power is out while a generator is replaced, and I find Haggard in the hot, dark living room, picking at his guitar. He says he sent the musicians home early, after three days, during which they cut 14 tracks, but none he was satisfied with. "The musicians played fine," he says. "But I wasn't happy with myself."

We drive to the studio to hear playbacks. Haggard listens with his arms folded, a dirty brown fishing cap resting on his knee. After three songs he tells engineer Lou Bradley to shut off the tape. "I gotta get out of here," he says, holding his stomach. "I feel queasy." He walks into the studio's musty entry hall. "It's probably just my vocal on the track that made me sick," he says.

Haggard is bothered by something that happened earlier in the day. While he was in the studio, a man with a long beard carrying a canvas bag over his shoulder wandered onto the property. Theresa met him in the driveway, and the man told her he'd traveled all the way from Martha's Vineyard to give Haggard a message: In a former life, he said, he had been John Wilkes Booth and Haggard was Abe Lincoln. He said he came to apologize for killing Merle.

Haggard cocks his head as Theresa retells the story. Theresa notes that the canvas bag was shaped like it could hold a rifle. Haggard tells her not to worry, but a few minutes later he leaps up from his chair when he thinks he sees a flash of metal on the hillside. Haggard doesn't feel like talking and asks me to pick him up at 9:30 the next morning for breakfast. At 6:47 a.m. the phone rings. "It's Haggard," he says. "Can you come get me now? I'm up, and I'm ready to get started."

Haggard is quiet for most of the ride, but as we approach downtown Redding, he points out his favorite buildings and tells stories about the town's frontier history. He notices a redwood rising from the side of a crumbling apartment complex and asks me to pull over. "Would you look at that?" he marvels. "This all used to be redwood trees up through here, till the loggers pulled them all out. How can you do that – destroy something so beautiful?"

Lulu's diner is perched between old and new Redding – on the frayed edge of downtown, across the street from a big-box mall. "Right here is like much of America, I suppose," Haggard says sadly. Two teenage girls smile and wave at Haggard in the parking lot. "They recognize you?" I ask. "No. Prostitutes, I'm pretty sure. No other reason to be around this part of town." A fire engine roars past. Haggard throws his arms in the air and salutes.

Haggard eats breakfast most mornings at Lulu's and flirts with the waitress, Joan, a droll, middle-aged country girl whom Haggard seems relaxed around in a way he's not with most people. Joan brings over a pot of his usual ginseng tea – but he sends it back. "No ginseng tea today," Haggard says. "They're not gonna let me drink this anymore – bad for the heart or something."

Joan brings orange spice instead. "You sure you don't want to ask your doctor first?" she says, with a wink. "All those spices are liable to upset your stomach."

"Can't have nothing that's good," Haggard says dryly.

'You're finally facing it?" she says.

"I'm facing it." He goes on, "Let me have a short stack and oatmeal. Thin."

"So you're just going to have a bunch of starch?" She smiles. 'You know, Merle, you better just grow your own everything in your garden – you want to be safe."

"Hell," says Haggard, "I can't even grow a hard-on. How'm I gonna grow a garden? Ah ha hah hah hah ha ha!"

A fly has been buzzing around the table and lands on my arm. "That damn fly is bugging me," Haggard says. He grabs for it and misses. "I think I hit him," he says, though the fly is now buzzing loudly against the window. "Well," he says, "at least he knows we don't like him."

As usual, Haggard is thinking about retiring from touring. "I hate to quit, but I think that's about what I'm gonna do. I'm tired of spending what little energy I've got out there with the voice, with the career – everything is for the career. The career comes first, and the family takes second place. I don't know why, but suddenly they're more valuable than the voice."

Haggard sees a lot of similarities between his son and his father. "One time I took Ben fishing when he was about six," he says. "The sun was so that you could see the fish in the water. Boy, the fish were bigger than him. He said, 'I don't want to fish here.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'If I hook one of them, they'd pull me in.' I said, 'No, Ben, I'll hold on to you, go ahead.' 'No.' I said, 'Now look, goddamn it, we come down here to fish, man.' He said, 'Dad, let's not make a bad memory.' A six-year-old kid . . . I realized I was dealing with somebody that was an old soul."

Ben is a gifted guitar player who recently began touring with the Strangers. Jenessa goes to culinary school and handles much of Haggard's business. "I think these kids are more grounded than their parents," Haggard says. "Theresa and I have had a hard life. My wife doesn't know how much I care about her and how much I care for the family unit, and I'm at the place in my life where if I'm ever going to get it across to her, it's going to have to be now. She doesn't know that she's number one. I need to stick around. They need me. My wife needs me more now than she did when we met."

The next time I see Haggard is early February. He underwent lung surgery in November, and doctors did not know whether he'd ever be able to sing again, let alone go back on tour so soon. "They say it's probably more invasive than open-heart surgery," Haggard says, standing in his driveway as the band and crew prepare his new million-dollar bus for its maiden voyage. "They come in from the back and they have to cut off a couple of bars – like breaking a guy out of jail – and you don't get to put those back. I'm like a fence with a hole in it."

The bus is state-of-the-art, with cream leather seats, yellow oak cabinets ("no plywood onboard") and a custom-designed back lounge. "You could say I went ahead and bought the whole loaf of bread," Haggard says. He's dressed for the road in a long blue coat, black fedora and beat-up ostrich boots, with his guitar slung over one shoulder. Except for the six-pack of bran muffins he carries under one arm, Haggard looks every bit the rambling troubadour he's been for almost half a century.

The tour does not start smoothly. On the drive toward Sacramento, the lights in the bus keep blinking on and off, and Haggard can't get the floor heaters to work. "Everything these days is built to last about eight hours," he observes. Later, he barks at his drummer, "They gotta fix this shit, Biff. This bus is worth $1.2 million, and the lights don't work." Then, inexplicably, he adds, "Tell 'em I can't show this bus to Clint Eastwood till it's fixed right."

As the bus pulls into the parking lot of tonight's venue, a rinky-dink casino in Colusa, tour manager Frank Mull informs Haggard his set time is only one hour. "They want 'em back on the gambling floor – that's their attitude," Mull says. This makes Haggard so angry he threatens to walk out. "Goddamn," he says. "Tell 'em 90 minutes if they want a show."

Theresa, who was supposed to drive herself the two hours from home to the venue, does not show up. Haggard seems flustered, and every few minutes he asks Mull to call the house to find out where she is. He eats two bran muffins for dinner – absentmindedly chopping the crumbs up on the table with a card, as if they were lines of cocaine – and has trouble picking his stage clothes without her. "I guess I'll go with black," he mutters. "Funeral black." Then he changes his mind and pulls out a long, fringed blue Western shirt and a white Stetson. "Shit, I may just slap on a Lefty Frizzell jacket and a hat. They'll think I worked all day on the outfit."

After all these years, Haggard is not a natural performer. He is almost bashful in front of a crowd. "He never has really been a star like some people think," says Stranger Norm Hamlet. "Merle has always been more like he just wants to be one of the guys in the band." Tonight, he strolls onstage in long, slow strides, performs a little two-step, then lifts his Stetson in greeting before launching into "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink." Despite today's rough start – and the fact that the concert hall is just a linoleum-floored bingo hall, filled with plenty of senior citizens in wheelchairs and dragging oxygen tanks – Haggard puts on a spectacular show. His voice is missing a little low-end since the surgery, but once he warms up, he sounds clear and open, and he works through a set heavy on recession songs: "Workin' Man Blues," "Big City," "Are the Good Times Really Over."

"It's nice to be here," he tells the crowd. "It's nice to be anywhere." After the show, Haggard holds court in the diner-style booth at the back of his tour bus. "How much you weighin', son?'" he asks Noel. "I'm up to 170. Most I've ever weighed in my life. My Theresa's got me on a diet. We're doing a protein-and-salad thing." (In fact, Haggard says his favorite food these days is raw bass, which he catches in his lake. "I wrap it up and do it like you do sushi. It's absolutely delicious.") I ask if he's slowing down on his marijuana intake since the surgery. "I don't know if quitting will make you live longer," he says. "But it'll damn sure seem like it's longer."

After the gear is packed and the last joint has been smoked, Haggard gets ready to turn in – it's a long ride to Orange County for tomorrow night's show, and there are 11 more shows on consecutive nights through Nevada and Montana after that. Haggard has traded his stage clothes for a striped rugby shirt and his brown fishing cap. Underneath his ostrich boots he's wearing dirty white socks. He looks worn out, but he says he's looking forward to getting back into the rhythm of the road.

"It was a bit surprising to find that the outcome of the surgery was as good as it was," he tells me. "It's kind of like finding out there's more time on the show and you've played your best songs. 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." He looks up, locking his liquid-blue eyes on mine. "God was kind," he says. "But now he expects some work out of it."

This story is from the October 1st, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1088: October 1, 2009
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