The Fighter: The Life & Times of Merle Haggard

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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.

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