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The Fighter: The Life & Times of Merle Haggard

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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."

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