“I’m living proof that things go wrong in America, and I’m also living proof that things can go right,” Merle Haggard proclaimed in the 2010 PBS “American Masters” documentary “Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself.”
The film took the outlaw country legend on a trip back to his hardscrabble roots around Bakersfield, Calif., where he was born in 1937 and where he got into the kind of trouble that landed him in San Quentin in 1958.
Part of the proof that things can go right: Haggard was one of the inmates in the audience when Johnny Cash played his famous New Year’s Day concert at the prison in 1959. It was an event that changed his life and helped spawn a music career that has been going strong since the 1960s.
“It was quite an experience. Like trying to live it all twice — like some sort of a psychic experience,” Haggard said recently, recalling the rush of memories the making of the documentary stirred.
Haggard, who beat lung cancer in 2008 and turned 75 in April, is back on the road again with his longtime band, the Strangers, resuming a tour that had to be canceled in January when he was hospitalized in Macon, Ga., and treated for pneumonia.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done that,” Haggard said. “It was really lucky that I wound up in Georgia, where there were some good people to take care of me. It took me the best part of three months to get over it, but I’m completely over it now, I think. I feel real good.”
Haggard’s two most recent recordings on the independent Vanguard label — 2010’s “I Am What I Am” and 2011’s “Working in Tennessee” — serve as a reminder that the man who sparked cultural controversy in the ’60s with songs like “Okie From Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me” still isn’t afraid to speak his mind.
“I’ve seen our greatest leaders break their people’s heart,” he sings on “I’ve Seen It Go Away.” And on “What I Hate” he concludes, “What I hate is what I hate. And I always will.”
He thinks he has been to the White House four or five times, but Haggard said he’s not really a political person. And if he felt out of place among the 2010 Kennedy Center honorees, he was proud to receive his medal alongside Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey.
“It’s about the biggest thing they can give you in the U.S., especially for somebody like me,” Haggard said.
Famous for his songs, singing, and guitar and fiddle playing, Haggard thinks maybe his most underappreciated talent has been keeping the Strangers going.
“The band changes from year to year,” Haggard said. “It’s a harder job than people might imagine. Every time you have to let somebody go it’s like a divorce.”
Steel guitar player Norman Hamlet has been in the band since 1967. Haggard’s son, Benion, took over on lead guitar four years ago. Haggard’s wife, Theresa, sometimes comes out on tour and joins in on vocals.
Though nowadays he enjoys life on his 189-acre California ranch near Shasta National Forest — and took a little break last month to go camping with the family — Haggard doesn’t expect he’ll ever quit the road.
“I’ve had nine lives, like a cat,” he said. “I’m only on number five or six, I hope.”
A Merle Haggard timeline
: Merle Ronald Haggard is born on April 6. The family lives in an old boxcar converted into a home near Bakersfield, Calif. Before Haggard was born, his parents had lived in Oklahoma, but their farm home burned down during the Great Depression.
: Haggard’s father dies.
: Haggard hops his first freight train.
: Older brother gives Haggard his first guitar.
: Runs away to Texas and spends much of his teens roaming the Southwest, in and out of trouble.
: Meets Lefty Frizzell in a concert in Bakersfield and sings a couple of songs to him backstage. Frizzell brings Haggard on stage to sing.
: Jailed in San Quentin after breaking into a cafe and later escaping custody. Sentenced to a 15-year term. While imprisoned, he sees Johnny Cash perform his legendary concert at the prison.
: Paroled and released from San Quentin.
: Joins Wynn Stewart’s band in Vegas as a bassist.
: Releases “Sing Me a Sad Song,” which hits No. 19 on Billboard’s country singles chart.
: Releases “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” the first of 38 No. 1 singles (see list at right).
: California’s then-Gov. Ronald Reagan expunges Haggard’s criminal record and grants him a full pardon.
: Plays at the White House for President Richard Nixon. He also records music for the Apollo 16 astronauts to take on their mission to the moon.
: Makes a cameo appearance in the film “Bronco Billy” and records the song “Bar Room Buddies” with Clint Eastwood. It hits No. 1.
: Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Sources: AllMusic.com, Rolling Stone, MerleHaggard.com.
The Hag’s No. 1s
(On the Billboard country singles chart)
• I’m a Lonesome Fugitive
• Branded Man
• Sing Me Back Home
• The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde
• Mama Tried
• Hungry Eyes
• Workin’ Man Blues
• Okie From Muskogee
• The Fightin’ Side of Me
• Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)
• Grandma Harp
• It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)
• I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me
• Everybody’s Had the Blues
• If We Make It Through December
• Things Aren’t Funny Anymore
• Old Man From the Mountain
• Kentucky Gambler
• Always Wanting You
• Movin’ On
• It’s All in the Movies
• The Roots of My Raising
• Cherokee Maiden
• Bar Room Buddies (with Clint Eastwood)
• I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink
• My Favorite Memory
• Big City
• Yesterday’s Wine (with George Jones)
• Going Where the Lonely Go
• You Take Me for Granted
• Pancho and Lefty (with Willie Nelson)
• That’s the Way Love Goes
• Someday When Things Are Good
• Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room
• A Place to Fall Apart (with Janie Frickie)
• Natural High
• Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star