I've had my country music highlight for the year. It goes something like this:
“Hi, can I speak to Merle Haggard?”
“Yep, this is Merle.”
The 73-year-old voice on the other line is weathered and familiar, while a lap dog yaps in the background, and I can't help recall classic honky-tonk, from the early hit “I'm a Lonesome Fugitive” to such originals as “Mama Tried” and “Okie from Muskogee.”
This is the guy who co-founded the twangy Bakersfield sound and influenced not only the outlaw country of the '70s but also the rabidly pro-American stuff that came later. He's what hip-hop heads might call an “O.G.” — raised dirt poor in Southern California during the Depression, serving an early stint in San Quentin prison for a botched tavern robbery, only to turn his life around and become an iconic star with 38 No. 1 hits. Alongside pal Johnny Cash, whom he watched perform while in prison, “Hag” has forged one of the most authentic voices country music has ever known.
Like his songs, Haggard is honest and to-the-point, though there's a moodiness lurking when the subject turns to politics. Speaking from home in Northern California, he's upbeat after learning his critically acclaimed new album, “I Am What I Am” (his 76th), is No. 1 on the Americana charts.
“I'm kinda excited about it,” he says slowly. “We've had more response than we've had in 25 years. I guess we'll celebrate going down the road.”
Celebrate he should. Two years ago, Hag had surgery for lung cancer but recovered and seems to have his touring mojo back. “Funny, that's always a question of mine,” he says. “I think I'm all right, I feel good.”
His band, the Strangers, now features his son Ben on guitar. “I didn't know he was playing that good till two years ago,” Haggard says. “He blew me down and I had to put him in the band.” His son learned some guitar from him, but mostly through his computer. “He gives me more advice than I give him,” his dad says, not clarifying when asked to elaborate. “Just seems like an old soul, born with some wisdom, you know?”
Speaking of wisdom, Hag's elegiac new album has a little of everything that made him a Grammy-winning, Nashville Hall of Fame songwriter — from Lefty Frizzell-inspired Western swing to bittersweet honky-tonk ballads, even a mariachi-style horn song, “Mexican Band,” with the lyrics “no sabe the lingo, cause I'm just a gringo, but I do like to work with my hands / Early mañana I'll smoke what I wanna and listen to old Mexican bands.” Haggard says that song is particularly nostalgic.
“When I was a kid going to work in the oil fields or picking cotton to get by, you had to get up early and the radio was 90-percent Hispanic,” he says. “It's just a piece of the puzzle of my life.”
Slightly less puzzling is his respect for Ronald Reagan, who fully pardoned him. Haggard has outspoken political views that might best be described as libertarian. But like the opening song on the album, “I've Seen It Go Away,” his outlook for his home state and the country has grown bleak. After touching on the Gulf spill (“they were drillin' too deep, bottom line”), he says with disgust that we're past the time for talk.
“We're having a hard time here [in California]. I guess we're broke and we got problems on the border,” he says. “What we've done the last 50 years is despicable. We have not managed this land well. We've cut down the trees, screwed up the air and shit in the water. I love this state and I hate to see it done the way it's being done.”
About his songwriting, Haggard is less revealing. “You just have to keep your ears open and stay aware,” he says. “The subject matter for the kind of life I've lived and the backdrop for the conditions of America gives you a deep well … but to me, seems like we've lost a degree of humor today.”
In fact, if Merle had to see the same Friday happy-hour act in a local dive bar for the rest of his life — the answer might surprise you. “I'm sort of a Johnny Carson fan, whatever he came up with,” he says. “I thought he was maybe the greatest entertainer in our time.”
Another prisoner at San Quentin taught Haggard one of his best longtime lessons regarding whether an individual lyric works. “You just lay it against the title,” he says with matter-of-fact certainty. “Then I take 'em to the stage and bounce 'em off an audience. They're the best sounding board.”
Haggard is on record for disliking most modern country music but it's not because of mullet perms, “American Idol” or pseudo rock flairs.
“It's the overcorrection with mixing. They even take out the human breath of a person making a note,” he explains. “Sometimes the sounds Elvis made were interesting, you know? They've sucked all that out and all you get is what the producers think is the selling point or high point of a condition … it's unrealistic and not entertaining to me.”
Haggard says he bought the last bit of recording tape he could before various companies went out of business. “I think the Internet is a double-edged sword,” he says. “These kids are exploring the origination of this music [laughs] and they're finding a lot of things have been altered.”
You won't catch him listening to his old material though. “I got a kid here who listens to it every once in awhile,” he says. “But I'm the guy who's into today and making something now. … I've got to think my best song is still out there. Keep the channels open.” S
Merle Haggard performs at the National on Friday, July 23. Show starts at 8 p.m. General admission tickets are $37.50 to $45 (balcony).
A special episode of PBS' “American Masters” show, “Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself,” will air July 21 at 9 p.m. on WCVE Channel 23.