Merle Haggard was in his early twenties, serving a possible 20 years in prison when San Quentin guards found him, drunk off his own beer, after he’d fallen into a latrine. “They handcuffed my ass and took me to where they gas people,” he said. It’s one of many heartbreaking stories in Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself, a new PBS documentary about the country legend. The film features interviews with Keith Richards, Kris Kristofferson, John Fogerty, and Robert Duvall, and examines the hardships of Haggard’s Bakersfield, California upbringing. He lost his father at age nine, spent his teenage years escaping from youth institutions and later penned 38 Number One country classics.
“It’s about how this guy is trying to accept himself and deal with everything that happened to him in his life when he was young,” says director Gandulf Hennig, who also directed 2004’s Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (Learning to Live With Myself debuts tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS as part of the American Masters series). Hennig followed Haggard on the road over three years, and filled the doc with fascinating archival footage of Haggard’s earliest performances in the Sixties. Rolling Stone spoke with Haggard about the documentary, his upcoming album with Willie Nelson and why he wants to retire.
Rolling Stone profiled you extensively last year, and now you’re the subject of a documentary about your life. What has it been like to discuss your past outside of your songs?
Well, I was pretty impressed with all I’ve been through, actually. You know it may help somebody in some way. It’s the source of my songs and it has to be talked about. That’s the way I approach it. I’ve gotten more tender, easier with age. My emotions are brought about easier now than they used to be. I’m not as tough as I used to be.
You’re a private person — you didn’t mind the cameras?
I’m an old performer. I’ve been around a lot of cameras. I figured that’s their job. My job is something else. I’m not shy to the camera. I don’t pay no attention to them. I’ve got a job to do. I see people get mad at camera people in the tabloids and all that. I don’t get it. It’s not the cameraman, it’s them. They don’t understand.
In the film, you return to the Boxcar, where you lived when you lost your father when you were nine. Was it hard to drive back to go back there?
Yeah, it’s always hard to do that. I’ve been back there several times and it’s in a state of deterioration. Not just the place where I live, but the whole town. The whole region needs to be bulldozed over, fixed up and sold. It’s gone. What I experienced there, there is no resemblance. It was a neat, clean. Even though there was oil, the oil companies cared more about it. It was a community that I think everybody would have been proud to have lived in. Well, now it looks like we’re trying to copy Los Angeles. You know what I’m talking about.
Also, in the south, you drive around and it’s Walmart, Cracker Barrel and Waffle House in every town.
Yeah. It’s not really that — there’s a lack of pride in the backyard. The backyard is a disaster. That’s the way it is at the Boxcar. My mother would have puked. She wouldn’t have allowed it. It was a Boxcar, but it was real clean. You didn’t have to look to see that it was clean. Now, it is what it is. And it’s horrible. And it’s beside a whole bunch of other ones that are just like it. If you rose up above in a helicopter, as far as you could see it’d be the same deal. I’m glad it’s about time for me to retire or… I can’t whip nobody’s ass. I’m too old for that, man. It makes me want to jerk somebody up and say “Why don’t you clean this motherfucker up? Don’t you have any pride? Why don’t you brush your teeth?”
Your albums still sound great and you’re still performing to big crowds. Why do you want to retire?
Well, I don’t. I’ll go as long as I can go because there are so many things that could edge me off. I could have a stroke in a minute. I’m at that age. I could have a massive heart attack and nobody would do an autopsy. But I feel pretty good, so I’m going to do it as long as I can.
In recent years, you’ve recorded in-the-moment material about the state of the country like “What Happened” and “America First.” Do you read the news a lot?
News is really interesting to me. I stay pretty much up with it. I watch a lot of television. I try to separate the different approaches in giving the news. It’s quite different on each channel. I don’t know how much truth you can get out of it. I know, for example, that the oil spill is 10 miles from where they are showing it on television. They’ve got some special video effects they’re showing us, and the real disaster is 10 miles away and they can’t even get close to it. Did you know that?
I didn’t know that, but I know they are trying to keep the media away from the oil spill.
On Coast-to-Coast AM they said that the benzene in the air from that spill is like 1,200 times what they’re admitting it to be. It’s absolutely terminal for the people that breathe it. They’ll die with cancer. If that be so, we are really setting back and taking a whole lot of horseshit from BP.
Do you think Obama has done all he can?
Let’s move on to another subject.
Keith Richards is a big character in the documentary. Are you a Stones fan?
Oh yeah. I’m a rock & roller. I’m a country guy because of my raisin’, but I’m a Chuck Berry man. I love Fats Domino just as much as I like Hank Williams and Lefty Frizell.
I read you and Willie might be working on an album together.
It hasn’t gotten very far, but Willie called me about six months ago and said he’d like to do an album and I said I would too. So we’re trying to get our trains to cross somewhere and get that material. We both agree that we need to do an album, but it needs to be first class with new material. Not something with old songs in it.
You guys will put out an album of all new songs?
I think it needs to be. Otherwise it’s just another album. We need to have something in the category of “Pancho and Lefty.” It needs to be that good.
Do you plan to reprise 2007’s Last of the Breed tour with Willie and Ray Price?
I sure hope so. The thing that’s bad about it is the kind of buildings we play don’t produce enough money for the three of us. Either two of us could go in and make a little money. The three of us just kind of screws the deal.
Did you have a favorite part of the documentary?
Well, you know, there were some things that Gandulf left on the editing floor that I had seen periodically over the time he was filming the documentary. A couple of things that I guess for time reasons didn’t make it. I was kind of disappointed those particular things were not there.
Certain people he interviewed. I know there was more time with Duvall and there was more time with my manager, Fuzzy. If I have a chance I’m gonna talk to him about it. I think Gandulf did real good. He’s really a sincere fellow. I got to give him an A-.