July 31, 2007

He’s Haggard, not harried, and ready for more

BY CARL CUNNINGHAMMerle HaggardCountry guy or rowdy rock rebel. Right-wing conservative or lefty liberal. Cantankerous old coot or sentimental old softie. Call him what you will — Merle Haggard can be and has been all of those things in his 40-odd years in the music business. With the exception of Willie Nelson and perhaps a few other lesser-known artists, Merle Haggard is also the sole surviving member of the famed Country Outlaw movement that revolutionized both country and rock ’n’ roll music in the early 1970s. Haggard has reached retirement age and then some, and he’s seen it all and done it all in his six decades in music. So, is the original “Okie from Muskogee” finally ready to hang up his guitar and fiddle?Not even close.With three fresh CDs out in stores and a bluegrass album coming out this fall, Haggard is still on the road performing hundreds of tour dates a year with his back-up band of four decades, The Strangers. They perform tomorrow night in Owensboro.“I tell you, life’s more interesting and fulfilling at 70, for me, than it was at even 10, or 20 years old,” Haggard tells me by phone from his California home last week.Fresh off his “Last of the Breed” tour with country music legends Willie Nelson and Ray Price, Haggard’s life is indeed not only more interesting at 70, it’s certainly quite a bit busier, too. You’d think that between touring, recording and being a husband and family man, he wouldn’t have time left over to be working on starting up an alternative energy company or on getting a film made of his life, but he is doing those things and much more.Haggard was also recently honored by the residents of his birthplace of Oildale, Calif., where a 3.5-mile stretch of road in is now known as Merle Haggard Drive. Haggard was born in Oildale, just north of Bakersfield, in 1937.In a career that goes all the way back to 1962, Haggard has won awards and played for U.S. presidents, but life wasn’t always so great for the musician dubbed “The Voice of the Common Man.”He’s had some ups and downs. From San Quentin to a Ronald Reagan pardon, No. 1 hits and boatloads of money to struggling financially and virtually no radio airplay in years, Haggard’s had more peaks and valleys than any of his younger, better-selling contemporaries could ever dream of. Sure, he still released albums and toured through the 1980s and ’90s, when country’s new crop of Wrangler-wearin’, cowboy-hatted, polished young guns were ruling the airwaves. But it was the stunning, beautiful tracks on his Anti Records debut If I Could Only Fly in 2000 that triggered a commercial and artistic renaissance in both his career and his legend. “I’m always looking to stir up a little excitement,” Haggard says of his decision to sign with Anti, a subsidiary of the California punk rock label Epitaph, for a two-record deal. Merle Haggard’s career upswing led him to receiving the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and capped off that five-year boon with a sell-out tour where he served as the opening act for rock and folk music legend Bob Dylan and a few dates opening for the Rolling Stones.Looking back on a life that started out with his parents fleeing the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, Haggard hasn’t forgotten his working-man roots or his rough-and-tumble early days.“Where I’m at in life now,” Haggard says, “where I’m comin’ from, I’ve been a lot worse. There’s ups and downs, but life’s real good to me right now.” And he says that as he’s gotten older, he finds it “more necessary to write from the heart than from the brain.”“I think I’m getting better with age. I’ve gotten softer, of course. There’s more to remember now and more to look back on. A lot of things have changed,” he says. “I have so much to be proud of and to think about. Things that tickle my heart interest me a lot more now.” Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.comMerle Haggard & The Strangers w/ Wade Hayes and Randy LanhamThursday, Aug. 2Owensboro SportsCenter1215 Hickman Ave.Owensboro, Ky.(800) 626-1936$25-$50; 8 p.m.