The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

July 21, 2013

Waking up Merle Haggard


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."

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