Merle's Makeover 

Country music legend Merle Haggard was spurned by country radio. Now he's being marketed to a generation of punk rockers.

Merle Haggard: At home, he's an orange farmer.
  • Merle Haggard: At home, he's an orange farmer.
On the road, country singer Merle Haggard's a living legend, but at home on his 185-acre ranch near Redding, California, he's simply a family man.

"I feel what I do is a privilege," he says. "But it comes with a lot of baggage. You have to give up a lot of time at home. But I get bored here, and my family senses it. They know I need to stay true to my commitment. I feel sorry for myself sometimes that I'm not getting to see my grandchildren or not seeing my second family grow up. It's not hatred. It's the price that one gives up to do what I do. I live it 50-50. I live here as an orange farmer and a citizen. Then I go out on the road and become Merle Haggard. I go out on the stage and try to be what they expect me to be."

Right now, fans expect nothing but the best. The Hag and his band, the Strangers, are on the road promoting their latest album, If I Could Only Fly. The compilation of 12 songs, though written over a period of several years, carries a reflective theme that surprised even Haggard. "Each song was not done to match the album," he explains. "It's like fish. We caught them all in separate places, but when they were on the stringer, they flowed nicely together."

"I'm Still Your Daddy" is Haggard's heart-wrenching confessional of past wrongdoings to his daughter. His wife's love is celebrated in "Proud to Be Your Old Man," and their miscarried child is memorialized in "(Think About a) Lullaby." And "Thanks to Uncle John" tells the story of a man who took in a young, homeless Haggard and taught him a chord on the guitar.

It's this album that fills Haggard's voice with childlike enthusiasm. Released by Anti, a subsidiary of Epitaph, a punk label run by Bad Religion's Brett Gurewitz, If I Could Only Fly has put the aging Haggard in front of a new crowd.

"Country music sort of turned its back on me," he says. "It said, 'You're too old. We can't play you.' The big labels play a lot of games. Anti came with no games. It didn't come with the premise that they would get me on the radio. They said they believed they could sell Merle Haggard with or without airplay.

"They've made a lot of money on punk rockers, and now they're trying to establish a record company with the stability of a Merle Haggard," he continues. "They said, 'We're going to use your name. In exchange, we're going to take 72 people around the world, and they're going to work their butts off and find ways to sell Merle Haggard records without any airplay.' And they would give me some big dollars up front and pay me a royalty double that of Streisand's."

Though a fairly new union, the coupling works. Haggard, with oodles of loyal fans from his early days, is now drawing young people by the hordes. He's appeared on Letterman and The Tonight Show. Last year's televised duet with Jewel placed him before an even fresher audience. And his publicist claims there were more punk rockers than bluehairs at a recent concert in Portland, Oregon.

"My music has been accepted as a body of work with a credibility that stands alone," he says. "People of all ages and all walks of life, both sexes, straight and gay -- everything comes to see the show. There was this little three-year-old, still in her daddy's arms. I came off the bus, and she said, 'That's the man that wrote "Big City."' She didn't even know my name, but she had picked me off the radio and knew the songs. She pointed to the tape. She was more interested in the song than in me. And the song is the most important. That's what gets through to the public. Singers come and go."

With a youthful exuberance betrayed only by his 64 years, the legendary Haggard vows to continue his lifelong commitment to writing, singing, and producing music. "I'm not just here for a few days to make some money. This is my life. For better or worse. I'm here for the whole ride."

And what a ride it's been. Haggard was raised in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, California. His father, now larger than life, died when his son was only nine. His mother, a devout Christian, couldn't -- and wouldn't -- fill her husband's shoes. By age 13, the distraught teen was committing petty crimes and doing time. Like an unbridled cancer, the crimes escalated to auto theft, escape from custody, and robbery. Just as in his song "Mama Tried," Haggard turned 21 in prison. But from the walls of San Quentin's solitary confinement arose an unfamiliar yearning to do things right. You see, Johnny Cash had played at that prison. And for the first time in years, Haggard was listening.

Paroled in 1960, the renewed Haggard dug ditches and played guitar with bar bands. Within two years, he had a record deal and soon thereafter, a hit single, "Sing a Sad Song." By 1967, he had won numerous awards, and several songs sat atop the charts.

But the next 30 years would be as rocky as his first 30. Haggard was tossed into the political spotlight with a song meant to be a patriotic statement. With lines such as "We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street" and "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," "Okie From Muskogee" riled anti-Vietnam War groups and offended hippies.

But it was that purity and honesty that kept Haggard fans by his side. During the '70s and '80s, he rode the wave of stardom -- until his restlessness took hold once again. He fell into bankruptcy, said goodbye to his fourth wife, and began missing concerts. Rumors of wild parties, drinking, and drug use were the norm when he lived in a houseboat on Lake Shasta.

Then along came wife No. 5. More than 20 years his junior, Theresa has made a home for Haggard, and the couple have two children under 12, adding to Haggard's four grown children, numerous grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

"It's wonderful," he says. "They have their own personalities. They make you mad. They use everything against you, and you'd better tell them the truth, because they reflect back what you give them. And sometimes, you won't like what you see."

Haggard has become quasi-religious in his later years, and he believes he's been given a second chance to raise a family. He's had heart problems, but after a surgery that he now believes may have been unnecessary, he chose the homeopathic route. He also swears that he's had "no paper or tobacco" in his mouth since 1991.

His career has come full circle -- back to the passion one would expect to see radiating from a new artist. With his next album, Fresh Milk, he says he's stepped back, technically, to the days of his influences -- Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.

"It's innocent," he says of the album, due out in August. "It doesn't have electronic overkill. There's no echo. No manipulation. It's like making a 1949 Cadillac without today's technology. We went in with our talent and made some of the best music I've ever made in my life."


More by Denise Edgington


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