By Drew Lyon
Special to The Free Press
---- — 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."
I relax. Merle Haggard is awake, laughing and talking to me.
I look at the notes I prepared. I have no earthly idea where to start a conversation with someone who served hard time in his 20s in California's San Quentin Prison for a failed burglary, then rebounded to write a bevy of the most beautiful songs in the American music canon; a man who's written two autobiographies ("I'll probably write another if I live long enough"), was pardoned by then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, played at the White House for President Nixon and received a Kennedy Center Honor from President Obama. And battled cancer, too.
It sounds like the makings of a feature film, and it is; a movie based on Haggard's life and times has been in development for 30 years.
"We just don't know what today is going to deliver," he says. "But I know I've been blessed."
I decide to let someone else ask him about the penitentiary, pardons and politics. Though he's revisited his criminal past often in his songwriting, Haggard hasn't been in custody of the state of California for more than 50 years.
I want to talk about music, let the legend feel at ease while he wakes up.
I go back even further in time, and talk to Haggard about his musical heroes when he was growing up in a converted boxcar in Oildale, Calif., in the late 1930s and 1940s. Legends in their own time like Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizell and Hank Williams.
"Well, they had a lot of effect on me," he says. "Back in the days of records, when that was a big deal, there wasn't a lot of other entertainment to compete with. They were the top dogs. When I was 12 or 13 years old, I tried to emulate Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizell."
This is the 50th anniversary year of Hank Williams' death, but in 2011, Haggard co-wrote "The Sermon on the Mount" with the country archetype, arranging and adding music to a collection of Williams’ unpublished lyrics.
"I thought that was a great honor," Haggard said. "Bob Dylan was involved in that; Bob asked me to do that."
Yes, Bob Dylan, Haggard's old road mate.
"We toured a couple years together," he says, "all over the United States. Bob's quite a guy, he's hard to figure."
Haggard's been traversing the continent since 1965, when he first hit the road with his longtime band, The Strangers. The accolades are enormous: 38 No.1 country singles, thousands of recordings, hundreds of albums, several hall of fame inductions and universal respect among his peers.
Haggard sees no reason to quit now.
"We've played all over, and it's always different," he says. "Every time I make this cross-country trip, I think about retiring. I probably should've retired a long time ago, but I enjoy it. I don't know, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense (to retire) as long as I'm healthy. The attendance has been up the last few years.
"Haggard's written songs of a staggering variety — drunkard's laments, honky-tonk stompers, lovesick weepers, tender ballads, patriotic and protest anthems.
The urge to compose usually arrives in spurts.
"I'm an inspiration writer," he says. "I don't sit down and try to write. I write for the moment. It's been a dry spell, about eight or nine months since I've written anything. But I still try."
I fear I'm probing a sore spot, but I ask Haggard about his most famous song, "Okie from Muskogee." Released in 1969, "Okie from Muskogee's" lyrical content ("We don't smoke marijuana ... We don't make a party out of lovin' ") caused a cultural stir in Woodstock-era America.
Sometimes, Haggard cautions, a song is just a song.
"You know, most people are like you and I," he says. "They understand it, they don't do the pigeon-hole thing. A lot of that song was humor, and people understand that. You can sing it with a straight face, or with a smile."
These days, Haggard and his band perform about 100 dates a year. Two weeks on, two weeks off. He doesn't use a formal set list but tries to strike a balance between pleasing his fans and keeping his vast repertoire fresh.
"I'm carrying one of the best bands I've ever had right now," he says. "You guys can see when I get there."
Haggard plays Wednesday in Mankato for the first time since the 1970s.
"We don't do the same kind of show outside as we would do indoors," he says of the Vetter Amphitheater show. "The environment kind of delivers what you should do."
If his 20-year old lead guitarist bears a resemblance to the singer, it's no coincidence.
"My son, Ben, is playing guitar with me because he's the best guitar player I could find," he says.
"He started playing on stage when he was 15. It's a thrill. He's learned more about music in 10 years than I have my whole life. It's amazing to see a kid stand up there with a bunch of old guys and play his butt off. "
The son introduced his father to a new medium — social media. Even Merle Haggard has Facebook and Twitter accounts.
"I burnt my lip and shot a hole in my guitar the other day," he wrote in a recent post. "Most eventful."
Ben Haggard's dad is no hack on the guitar, either. Merle fashioned himself a guitar player long before he took the microphone as a singer.
"It's part of what I do," Haggard says. "I didn't really intensely try to play guitar myself—I've had great guitar players working in my band — but that's how I started in this business. Oh, God, I was about 24 years old, 1960. I didn't want to sing. I wasn't much of a singer."
More than a half-century later, he is quite the singer. Fans of all ages recognize Haggard's deeply soulful vocals.
"I see 3-year olds in their mama's arms coming to my shows," he says. "I walked out of the bus awhile back, and there was a little girl in her parent's arms and I heard her say, 'Is that the man that sings 'Big City'?"
I have exhausted my list of questions, and figure I better not press my luck. I've had my moment with a king. I thank Mr. Haggard, for his time, his music and for calming my nerves.
"And I'm sorry if I woke you up," I say."No need to be that way," Mr. Haggard replies. "I'm glad you called."