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The Fighter: The Life & Times of Merle Haggard

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"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."

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