Merle Haggard is one of the most name-checked singers in modern country music, honored by a string of songs — including Eric Church’s “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” and Mo Pitney’s “I Met Merle Haggard Today” — that tip their hats to the pioneering outlaw. As it turns out, the respect isn’t exactly mutual.
“I can’t tell what they’re doing,” he recently told The Forum of Fargo-Moorehead, speaking candidly about the current leaders of the genre he once helped popularize. “They’re talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don’t find no substance. I don’t find anything you can whistle, and nobody even attempts to write a melody. It’s more of that kids stuff. It’s hot right now, but I’ll tell you what — it’s cooling off.”
There are exceptions, of course. Haggard admits to having a soft spot for Sturgill Simpson, the left-of-center Kentuckian whose music rustles up the same defiant, drug-friendly vibe as Seventies outlaws like Waylon Jennings.
“He comes out and does a great show,” says the Hag, who’ll share a bill with Simpson this Sunday evening in, appropriately, Moorehead, Minnesota. Kris Kristofferson, another legend who’s received his fair share of shoutouts from today’s hitmakers, rounds out the lineup, further proof that Simpson has been accepted by the living grandfathers of country music. According to Haggard, though, the Metamodern Sounds in Country Music creator is the only one who makes the cut.
“As far as I’m concerned,” he says, “[Simpson]’s the only one out there. The rest of them sound like a bunch of shit to me.”
Still proving his mettle after a half-century career, Haggard is spending the rest of the year on the road, with shows that range from Roanoke, Virginia, to Beverly Hills. Part of those travels include a joint tour with Willie Nelson this October and November in support of their recent Django and Jimmie duets project. The album hit Number One on the country albums chart back in June, proving it’s not just tailgate screwing that sells.