Inside Merle Haggard’s Final Years
One evening around sunset, Merle Haggard was leaning against his silver tour bus, the Santa Fe Super Chief, before a show at the Crazy Horse Saloon on the dusty fringes of Orange County, California. He stared off grimly at the brown, rolling hills that looked as if they might stretch all the way to the coastline, but which Merle pointed out had been carved into housing subdivisions and a massive energy plant just over the ridge. “Ain’t nothin’ pure left in this country,” he said. It was the first thing Merle ever said to me.
It was 2004, and Merle was 66. He looked tired, shrunken. His blue jeans hung too low, and his face was lined with creases, etched in deep ravines across his forehead and in spiderweb patterns through his cheeks. He said he had a stomachache, and he climbed onto his bus to look for a clove of garlic. “If the garlic doesn’t work for you,” he said, “you better go to the hospital.”
Though he’d recently released two of his finest late-career albums, If I Could Only Fly and Roots, Volume 1, which helped re-connect Haggard to a young audience, he said he felt marginalized, out of step. He said his body hurt, from his neck all the way to his right foot, probably from playing the fiddle. He sat in a beige velour chair that served as his tour-bus throne, and smoked weed from a curved wooden pipe as he roamed freely among many topics: the dangers of caffeine (“Far worse than cocaine, look it up, it’s proven!”), extraterrestrials (“We ain’t the smartest bear in the woods, anyone with a brain can see that”), and what he considered the terrible decline of our country. “Used to be a wide-open place,” he said. “A 24/7 country. You could fly from Bakersfield to Memphis, and the whole country would be lit up. Now, it’s dark. No one comes out of their house. Everyone’s scared. What happened?”
A club waitress boarded the bus and told Haggard that the Crazy Horse itself would be closing down soon. “Well, hell,” Merle said with a grimace. “Looks like we’ve closed another beer joint.”
Then he added, more sadly, “I feel like it’s about time for me to head to the barn.”
Merle never headed for the barn. Even when he made rumblings about retiring, his actions pointed in the opposite direction – right up to the end. In 2010, two years after being diagnosed with lung cancer, he built an elaborate studio on his ranch, with pristine acoustics and top-end analog equipment, where he recorded two of his final albums and planned to host concerts he would broadcast on the Internet. Shortly before he died, Merle put three new tour buses into service, including a $1 million custom model built to his own meticulous specifications. He also planned to turn an old bus into a rolling diner.
As I got to spend time with Merle at home and on tour during his last decade, I grew accustomed to his unpredictable rhythms. He could be pensive, paranoid and full of mischievous fun – often before he’d finished his pancakes. His mind was always spinning – testing theories, asking questions, checking facts. He was not a fan of what he called “established thinking”; one idea did not build on the last to form a linear worldview. He only seemed concerned with the truth as he saw it at any particular moment. He was a truth-seeker, not a truth-teller.