Critics have dubbed Merle Haggard the "Poet of the Common Man"
Haggard, 75, calls himself a walking miracle and credits God for keeping him healthy
Haggard: "I have been gifted and have had a better than average shot at everything"
Merle Haggard is celebrating his 75th birthday Friday. After he blows out the candles on his cake, he’ll climb aboard his tour bus to begin a cross-country journey from Northern California to Nashville, where he’ll headline a show Wednesday at the Ryman Auditorium.
It’s the perfect venue to showcase the country music icon’s latest album, “Working in Tennessee.”
Released last fall, the disc is chock-full of new songs written by Haggard, with a little help from his wife, Theresa, and daughter Jenessa. Son Ben plays guitar and joins his dad and family friend Willie Nelson for a remake of Haggard’s 1969 classic, “Working Man Blues.” Two more children – “from the first litter,” as the entertainer puts it – are part of Haggard’s road crew.
While most 75-year-olds are retired or cutting back on their schedules, the Country Music Hall of Famer shows no signs of slowing down despite hospitalizations in January for double pneumonia, three stomach ulcers, eight polyps in his colon and diverticulitis in his esophagus. In 2008, he beat lung cancer.
Haggard calls himself a walking miracle and credits God for keeping him healthy. He spent his 21st birthday in San Quentin State Prison for attempted robbery. He’ll celebrate this birthday surrounded by family and friends at his home in Palo Cedro, California. For the remainder of April, he’ll travel around the country, playing new songs and old such hits like “Mama Tried” and “Okie From Muskogee.”
In a rare and unflinching interview with CNN, the man critics have dubbed “Poet of the Common Man” sounds off on religion, poverty, politics, health and family.
“The thing I hope I have in common with the people out there is honesty,” he says. “I am not going to lie to the public or to anybody else. I got a pact with myself on that.”
CNN: Can we talk about your album “Working in Tennessee”?
Merle Haggard: I’m excited about it. There is a lot of interest. And I’m out here trying to promote it.
CNN: You don’t give many interviews.
Haggard: Well, they’re worth more when you do ‘em.
CNN: The album is kind of a family affair.
Haggard: It is. Theresa (his wife of 18 years) is involved, and both of the younger children. Benny (19) is playing guitar throughout the album. The family aspect adds some appeal to it.
CNN: Ben can sure play the guitar for someone so young.
Haggard: His mother knew more about it earlier than I did. She kept telling me that he could play if I would listen. One day he showed up and he knew how to play. I never watched him learn. He plays like an adult. Professional. He’s on thunder.
CNN: Is he very much like you?
Haggard: He is much wiser than his father.
CNN: You were raising some hell when you were his age.
Haggard: Yeah. He hopefully won’t have to do that. He has left that up to his father, I think. He has really got some words of wisdom every time you listen to him. He’s a fantastic boy.
CNN: There’s a song on this album that keeps sticking with me called “What I Hate.”
Haggard: There’s a lot of things I hate. It gave me a chance to vent what irritates me and also to turn around and say what I love. It is an interesting song. I like it best of all on the album.
CNN: Tell us the first couple of lines.
Haggard: (Sings) “What I hate is a statesman speaking out of both sides of his mouth.” That’s the first line.
CNN: Do you think there’s a lot of that going on?
Haggard: Well, going into this election year, I would bet on it. (Laughs)
CNN: Have you been keeping track of what’s been going on in the presidential race?
Haggard: I think an ex-convict has got a real good chance. I probably oughta run! At least all of my past is aboveboard, and they won’t have to spend a lot of money to run a make on me! I think Obama will probably win the next race.
CNN: (President Barack) Obama has certainly had his share of challenges in his administration. How do you think he’s done so far?
Haggard: I don’t think it makes much difference who the president is. I think there was a big ball rolling before he came into the picture. He kind of did what I do. I didn’t do anything. He hasn’t done anything that I can see that’s made any real difference. I think he is a fine gentleman, and they treated us real well when we were up there at the Kennedy Center (Haggard was a Kennedy Center honoree in 2010), and I am not going to badmouth him. I think he has the next four years wrapped up. He has done some good. He got Osama bin Laden. That is a real big plus.
Now on the home front, it is kind of fiddling while Rome burns. We are in trouble economically. I don’t think we can blame it all on one black man. I think we spent 50 years getting ourselves in trouble, and it may take a long time to get ourselves out of it. It is going to take more years than I got left.
CNN: Why do you think things have gotten so contentious?
Haggard: When we left the gold standard, when we left the silver standard, when we started issuing notes and papers and trying to give everybody everything. America has had a helping hand in every part of the world. I think they are bringing those troops home because they can’t afford it. Look at Germany. They’ve had no army to support. Who are all the Europeans going to borrow this money from? They’re going to Germany.
CNN: You’ve lived through some tough times. Your family made a home out of a boxcar, and your dad passed away when you were 9.
Haggard: My father was a creative human being. He didn’t have much formal education, but he was able to do things with his hands. He built everything inside of that boxcar and made a home out of it. Built a cement step out front and a walkway out to the driveway. It looked just like a regular home.
CNN: Did you think you were a poor child growing up?
Haggard: No. I was very well taken care of. We were poor, and when I could realize, I could see how poor we were. We lived paycheck to paycheck, and dad worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. I think he made in excess of 45 cents an hour. Just barely. And he got 10 hours a day. I remember him coming home one day and saying they were going to cut the hours down to nine hours a day, and they were going to pay us the same money. That won’t work. That was the beginning of the big union influence in America.
CNN: When you hit success, what did that mean to you?
Haggard: I am smart enough to know that I have been gifted and have had a better than average shot at everything. I have been blessed many times. I walk a blessed man’s path. I believe in the heavenly Father, and if he is not there, then there is somebody disguising himself and answering my prayers. I am a deeply religious man, and I believe that if you give it half a shot, that he will help you. And he certainly has me.
CNN: What are you praying for these days?
Haggard: Peace, harmony, health and the family. I pray for the children, and I pray over the food we eat. You know, our food’s been contaminated. It’s hard to find good water. We pray over that. And we say a prayer every now and then when we’re fixing to make a record.
You probably wouldn’t call us religious people if you saw us with a camera. You might not see what we’re doing. Sometimes there is a prayer being mumbled under our breath. That is the way it is if someone had a reality show on us. Might be interesting.
CNN: Is it a good time in your life?
Haggard: I am real fortunate. I am going to be 75, and I am able to walk around. I ain’t got no artificial hips. I got a bunch of false teeth in my mouth. But considering all where I have been with everything, and what I have been through, I am in real good condition.
CNN: What are you going to do for your 75th birthday?
Haggard: Take a big breath! (Laughs) What’s it going to be like for the next three-quarters of a century? It’d be our luck they may extend the lifespan for another 150 years, you know.