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The fightin' side of Merle Haggard 

The country legend discusses Donald Trump, shedding stereotypes, and working-class blues

click to enlarge 'It was more about pleasing a bunch of drunks than it was singing for a choir.' - MYRIAM SANTOS
  • Myriam Santos
  • 'It was more about pleasing a bunch of drunks than it was singing for a choir.'

Real people are more complicated than we're made out to be. Unlike presidential candidates and 24-hour news networks, we're capable of embracing a broad range of ideas and identities that don't all conform to a single ideology.

Musicians, with the exception of Ted Nugent, are no less unpredictable. Due to changing circumstances or, in some cases, sheer orneriness, even the most outspoken artists can and do defy expectations.

Earlier this year, Neil Young hit up Donald Trump for startup capital. During U2's recent show in Denver, Bono gave onstage shout-outs to Amnesty International and Bank of America, both in the same breath. Devo sells costumes at Target, Johnny Rotten appears in butter commercials. Even Lynyrd Skynyrd abandoned the Confederate flag (however briefly), which had been their stage backdrop for 40 years.

But when it comes to confusing fans and foes, none of them come close to Merle Haggard.

The outlaw country legend told Vietnam War critics to love it or leave it in his 1969 country hit "The Fightin' Side of Me," which followed hot on the heels of the more tongue-in-cheek "Okie from Muskogee," a redneck anthem to this day. Yet at the same time, Haggard was writing songs like "Irma Jackson," an ode to doomed interracial romance:

If my lovin' Irma Jackson is a sin

Then I don't understand this crazy world we're livin' in

It's a muddy wall between us standin' high

But I'll love Irma Jackson till I die.

Haggard said a few years later that, of all the songs he'd written, "Irma Jackson" was probably his favorite. While his record company tried to persuade him not to release it, Haggard had reached the point where he could call his own shots.

Altogether, he's had nearly 40 singles reach No. 1 — nine of them in one three-year period — including signature songs like "Mama Tried," "Workin' Man Blues," and "If We Make It Through December."

If there's a through-line that spans Merle Haggard's music — apart from that unforgettably resonant baritone and deep Telecaster twang — it's his empathy for the working class and other Americans who get the short end of the stick.

Born in Bakersfield, California, at the tail end of the Great Depression, Haggard grew up in the boxcar that his father, a railroad carpenter, had converted into the family home. In his rebellious teens, he went in and out of juvenile detention facilities, played guitar in local bars, and ended up spending his 21st birthday in San Quentin prison.

Today, at the age of 78, Haggard still tours relentlessly with his cross-generational band The Strangers, which includes his son on guitar and his wife and daughter on backing vocals. Django and Jimmie, his first duets album with Willie Nelson since 1983's Pancho and Lefty, debuted at No. 1 in June. Although he says it gets harder each album, Haggard still records and releases at least one every couple years. His next album is about three-quarters completed.

Last week, in anticipation of his upcoming Pikes Peak Center show, Haggard spoke about the "Bakersfield Sound," record-company conflicts, and, yes, Donald Trump.

Indy: A lot of singers who come through here complain about how difficult it is to adjust to the thin air. But you're the first artist I've seen who had an oxygen tank wheeled out by two backup singers dressed in nurses' uniforms. Was that something you were doing throughout the 2012 tour? Or was that just for us?

Haggard: That was just for you in Colorado. (Laughs.) They got them in a costume shop there.

Was the air worse in Pueblo than you remembered?

Well, I had a lung removed in 2008, so high-altitude elevations are kind of tough on me now. So I said, "You guys just come out and put one of them things on me, and I'll have to breathe it." And they said, "Well, we'll just wear nurses' uniforms." So that's what happened.

Compared to when I first saw you and your band play, which was maybe 15 years ago in L.A., it feels like you're really going for it now, like it matters a lot more.

As you get older, one thing that happens is time becomes more valuable. So there might be a little more planning to our music now than there was back then. I was more flamboyant when I was younger, and I've grown out of that.

Do you feel what you're trying to say is more important now?

Well, there again, you said it — importance. If it doesn't have a message to it, it really isn't of much interest to me.

You and Buck Owens were known for creating the "Bakersfield Sound" back in the '50s and '60s. Did you think of it that way at the time, or was that a concept other people came up with later?

The Bakersfield Sound was a barroom sound. They didn't have barrooms in Tennessee; they went to church. And the music that came out of Bakersfield beer joints in the '50s had Telecasters and drums, which weren't used very much in country music up until that time. So it was more about pleasing a bunch of drunks than it was singing for a choir.

Through the years, your songs have confused a lot of people. On the one hand, you'd be playing "The Fightin' Side of Me" in the Nixon White House, and then you'd also be writing a song like "Irma Jackson." What was it like having people always guessing about where you were coming from?

People tend to categorize you from their point of view. I'd rather be unpredictable as a writer, coming from where I'm coming from. So that's what I try to do.

You wrote "Irma Jackson" not long after the Martin Luther King assassination. Were you surprised by the reaction to the song?

Well, you know, America was going through a lot of growing pains at that time. And for me to speak out like that, it might have eliminated a lot of fans. But I'd rather be honest, in the long run.

Did your record company want you to be honest?

Not to begin with.

What changed their mind?

Well, they were just less than honest, let's put it that way. They didn't want me to put it out on a single, but they'd allow it to be on the album.

Your songs have always championed the working class. Do you think that people who are well off today understand what it's like for people who aren't?

I think things are different for people that are poor now, living in an electronic world where everything happens according to what the computer says. I'm sure they deal with different problems now than what poor people went through back in the '30s, and that you and I don't probably understand it thoroughly.

I guess back then, we hadn't outsourced all the jobs, so there was at least the prospect of getting work again.

I think that's the appeal of Donald Trump. He's wanting to make this country like it used to be, and I don't think it can be done, you know? You can't build a goddamn wall along the Mexican border. [Laughs.] And if you could, the Canadians would get jealous. They'd want their wall.

  • The country legend discusses Donald Trump, shedding stereotypes, and working-class blues

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