Far from being retired at 74, country music great Merle Haggard says performing keeps him alive.
“I’m in the midst of a pretty good tour here, having good crowds,” the relaxed singer-songwriter said this week from his hotel in Charlottesville, Va.
Haggard and his entourage, which includes his 18-year-old guitarist son, Ben, do their best every night.
“To not embarrass yourself, you give it all you got,” Haggard said. “And when we come off stage, we’re wore out. It’s good exercise.”
The next day, they do it all again.
“We travel at night,” Haggard said. “We play poker on the bus, sometimes till five or six in the morning. Then we try to sleep so we have the energy for the next show.”
Music, as Haggard well knows, raises spirits and helps troubled hearts carry on. That goes for the collective soul of an audience and the performers themselves.
“It’s such a thrill to have something that you’ve written raise the crowd,” he said. “And it’s a thrill to see your material chart and be placed with other songs that you know are great.”
Among country music’s renowned songwriters, Haggard has come to believe that his writing is at least as important as his singing.
“Maybe more,” he said. “Because after I’m dead and unable to sing, the songs will, hopefully, live on.”
LeAnn Rimes, in fact, features two Haggard songs on her forthcoming CD, Lady & Gentlemen.
“It just knocked me down,” he said of Rimes’ interpretations. “She just sung the heck out of them.”
Haggard has a new album in the wings, too. To be released Oct. 4, Working In Tennessee opens with its title track, an original Haggard composition inspired by a musical genre he loves, western swing.
“That’s part of me,” he said of the style popularized most of all by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. “But when you get up here in the east and northeast, people don’t know what western swing is. It’s a pleasant surprise, I think, for them.”
Working In Tennessee also features songs co-written by the singer’s daughter, Jenessa, and his wife, Theresa. And son Ben joins his dad and Willie Nelson in a remake of Haggard’s “Working Man Blues.” The singer and his wife also re-create the classic Johnny Cash-June Carter Cash duet, “Jackson.”
Haggard recorded “Jackson” the day that Cash, his dear friend, died.
“We were in the studio recording other things,” he recalled. “When we heard that Johnny passed, we went in and did 'Jackson’ and 'Cocaine Blues.’ It was a way of saying we loved him.”
Haggard felt more relief than grief upon Cash’s death.
“I felt like Johnny was released,” he recalled. “He went on to another plane, another existence that was much better than the one he’d been locked up in here. He had a chronic condition with a broken jaw. He was in pain all the time. I was glad to see him out of that suffering.”
Cash and Haggard were friends and peers for decades.
“Johnny helped me many times in my career,” Haggard said. “And I was there for him, a couple of times, when he didn’t have anybody. He was a troubled man. His slightly older brother was killed when Johnny was just a boy. His father blamed him for that and Johnny, I don’t think, ever got over it.”
Haggard loved Cash as both an artist and a friend.
“Be hard not to appreciate Johnny Cash,” he said softly.
It was Cash, too, who gave Haggard some valuable career advice in the late 1960s.
“We were doing his TV show and I was well into my career, far enough along that he was noticing me,” Haggard recalled. “And Johnny mentioned to me, 'You know, you ought let me tell them where you’ve been.’ I said, 'Tell who?’ He said, 'The crowd of people in America. If you let me straighten them out, the tabloids will never be able to hook you.’ “
Cash was talking about Haggard’s history of reform school and prison, including hard time in San Quentin. More importantly, Cash knew that Haggard’s life was a true tale of redemption and reinvention.
“I told Johnny,” Haggard said, “ 'Well, the last thing in the world I want people to know is that I’ve been in trouble. That’s a big scare in my life. I don’t want to admit to that.’ But Johnny said, 'If you let me explain it the right way, they’ll love you for it.’ “
Haggard ended up following his friend’s wise counsel. He wrote about his life, penning lyrics of rare honesty. His compositions include the great prison song “Mama Tried”; “Hungry Eyes,” a portrait of a family in poverty; and, co-written with Bonnie Owens, the torch classic “Today I Started Loving You Again.”
“I took Johnny’s advice and it looks like he was right,” he said. “Yeah, it’s nearly all autobiographical.”
Writing such songs spurred a healing side effect.
“There’s a strange, I guess, completeness to it,” Haggard said. “It’s like giving birth to a child, I would imagine. And you come up on things that pull your heart, realities that maybe you didn’t realize. It’s satisfying and therapeutic.”
Having earned myriad honors and awards, including his 1994 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Haggard nonetheless was surprised to be among last year’s Kennedy Center Honors recipients. The 2010 honorees included Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney.
“I didn’t realize anybody in that class appreciated me,” he marveled. “It was quite something. Oprah Winfrey has been so influential in her life. Paul McCartney, what can you say? And the other people were all tops in their fields. It was great to hobnob with those kind of people.”