Entertainment & Life

Merle Haggard, one of the last music outlaws

Merle Haggard walks the red carpet with his family during the annual California Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Tuesday, December 14, 2010, in Sacramento.
Merle Haggard walks the red carpet with his family during the annual California Hall of Fame induction ceremony on Tuesday, December 14, 2010, in Sacramento. hamezcua@sacbee.com

This story was originally published March 31, 2013. Merle Haggard died Wednesday, April 6, 2016.

Most of the founders of country music are gone -- Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Roy Acuff -- along with most of the original "outlaw" band of brothers that included Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

Now only a handful of old-school outlaws are left -- Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson. They're the guys in the black hats who brought the rough-edged honky-tonk sound back to country music, bucking the slick Nashville machine and challenging what ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox called Nashville's "law-and-order authoritarianism."

If Haggard has a mantra, it could be "Saved by music." He was born in 1937 near Bakersfield, raised in a house fashioned from a freight train car and specialized in raising hell as a teen.

At age 20, he was busted for breaking into a restaurant that happened to be open at the time (some drinking was involved). The cops found a stolen check-printing machine in his car and put him in the local jail. Haggard made matters worse by breaking out.

While serving three years in San Quentin State Prison, it occurred to him that music would be a better life path. Upon his release, he cut three records for a small label, was picked up by giant Capitol Records and had his first No. 1 hit in 1967, "The Fugitive."

What followed was a career-turned-legend. Haggard's journey includes nearly 40 No. 1 country songs, dozens of mega-selling albums, all the major country music awards including three Grammys, and induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. In 2010 he was honored at the Kennedy Center.

Haggard has survived alcohol and drug abuse (including a five-year cocaine binge), lung cancer and a tumultuous personal life; he's been married to his fifth wife, Theresa Ann Lane, since 1993.

Through it all he has toured nonstop with his distinct musical mash-up of country, folk, Dixieland jazz, blues, rock, gospel, ballad and Western swing. Rolling Stone magazine ranked him No. 77 on its 100 Greatest Singers of All Time list.

"The Hag" will turn 76 Saturday.

Q. You recently built a recording studio in Redding, near your home. What's going on?

A. We're doing a tribute to (country music pioneer) Ernest Tubb. I'm gonna do his method with my voice. We're also gonna do a tribute to Bob Dylan with some of his songs that I like -- "Blowin' in the Wind, " stuff like that.

Q. You and artists such as Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart helped create the "Bakersfield sound" in the mid-1950s, which is more raw than the Nashville sound.

A. Nashville music came out of the churches; Bakersfield music came from the bars. I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry (and was influenced) by Midwestern singers like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell.

Q. Are they your favorite songwriters?

A. I like the Irving Berlins and the people who wrote "Stardust" (Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish). Them and Hank Williams, Al Brumley, who wrote all the great gospel songs, and Willie Nelson, who's a great writer.

Q. You share songwriting credit for your satiric 1969 hit "Okie From Muskogee, " which the Academy of Country Music named Single of the Year.

A. Yes, there's another writer on there, Eddie Burris, who was the drummer with my band.

I wrote that song sitting in the buddy seat of the bus about 19 miles out of Musgokee. I showed it to Eddie and said, "What do you think?" He said, "I think it needs something about 'Roman sandals.' " So that line got in there ("Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear / Beads and Roman sandals won't be seen"). I gave him 25 percent (of the royalties) and he retired on it.

Q. What's the state of country music these days?

A. The depth of the art form is pretty shallow, mostly mechanical effects brought about from electronics. But I think this kid Hunter Hayes is the greatest thing that's happened. He writes the songs and plays the instruments and stays in key. He's a good 'un.

Q. Your 2013 tour schedule is booked through mid-December and will take you all over the United States and Canada in your bus.

A. Beats sittin' in a chair. It's not about the money -- God knows I need some money -- it's about the music and not about anything else. People got to realize we trade our home lives for the music, we lose our families over it.

Q. Touring must take a physical toll.

A. Singin' is more physical than it might appear. It's kind of like swimming -- you got to breathe real good. The older you get, your muscles go away quicker, so you got to do a lot of (singing) in order to keep it acceptable. To sing good, you got to sing a lot.

Q. You still love the road?

A. I don't care much about the damn road anymore. ... Used to be there were arches that welcomed you to the community. Now it's just an off-ramp and another gas station.

Q. How long do you plan to do this?

A. The rest of my life, probably about another 20 minutes.

Q. Your songs reach out and touch audiences, which must be a big responsibility.

A. It is. You got to give 'em 50 years of experience when you get on that microphone. You got to make the words count, don't give 'em the old circus-pitch, carnival-man crap.

Q. You've said your success has surpassed your dreams.

A. I stand in awe of the whole thing as I look back. It's been amazing.

Q. Any regrets?

A. You look back on things you could have done a lot better, had you had the knowledge you have now. I've got a lot of that.

I just say thanks to the fans and the man upstairs. There's a lot of gratitude that needs to be expressed from someone like me. I think people see through the smoke, and they gotta know I'm totally thankful.

Q. In the end, who is the real Merle Haggard?

A. I don't know. If you run into somebody who has a copy of that, let me know.

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe