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 performs in concert at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa, California.
Steve Jennings/WireImage
October 1, 2009

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."

Photos: Merle Haggard Through the Years

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."

The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time: Merle Haggard

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."

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