I'm scheduled to call Merle Haggard at 10:30 a.m. The underarms of my T-shirt are soaked in sweat; my hands so slick I dry them one last time before pressing 'send' on my cellphone. The phone rings as I consider how to address the great Merle Haggard, titan of American music.
Should I call him "Merle"? "Hag"? No, at 76, he's earned the title of "Mr. Haggard." Be cool and speak slowly, I tell myself. Haggard, after all, is the "poet of the common man" for good reason. The songwriter who penned "Workin' Man Blues" is not one to lay an ego trip on a lowly reporter.
I recall writer Peter Guralnick's description of interviewing Haggard in 1978: "Merle has the disarming knack of making his listener feel as if he or she is the only person on earth."
During a 20-minute conversation, it is clear Haggard has changed very little on that front. It just took a while to reach him.
First call — no answer. A woman's voice on the voicemail greeting: "Hi, you've reached Merle Haggard's cellphone..." After the third call, I leave a stammering message. His publicist suggests I keep calling. He doesn't grant many interviews; this might be my only chance.
I call back in 10-minute intervals until a familiar voice answers at 11:23 a.m.
"Hi, Mr. Haggard?"
"Yes, sir, that's me."
Mr. Haggard is on his bus — he's tired of airport hassles — traveling from his home in Northern California for a performance the following night in Minneapolis.
"Where am I reaching you from?" I ask.
"Well, I tell you, I just woke up," he says. "Let me find out (laughs). I think we're in Pennsyl ... looks like we're in, uh, Nebraska, I think."