A Conversation with Merle Haggard
Mike Ragogna: Merle, let's talk about your recent album Working in Tennessee, but first, how are you doing?
Merle Haggard: I'm doing alright, Mike. How're you?
MR: Doing very well, thanks. And thank you so much for your time, I'm very honored.
MH: Absolutely, my pleasure.
MR: Merle, the thing that I love most about Working In Tennessee is that it really comes across as a family album. Is that what you were going for?
MH: It certainly is. My wife joins me on a tribute to Johnny Cash and June, my daughter helped me write one of the songs, and Benny plays guitar and sings on, "Workin' Man Blues." So, it really was a family effort.
MR: Great. I imagine it's fun to make records with your family.
MH: Well, this particular record came off easy and we had a good time doing it. Sometimes, nothing's fun. This one came off good though.
MR: And there are some tracks on which you obviously had fun, like on "Jackson" that you recorded with your wife, Theresa. What made you choose that song?
MH: We were in the studio the day that Cash passed away, so we wanted to honor him with that tribute.
MR: Beautiful. To me, the title of your album, Working In Tennessee, brings up thoughts of people trying to break through and make it in music. What do you think it's like for kids these days trying to do just that?
MH: I have no idea. It's a totally different world from when I first broke into the business. It's a lot more technical and precise, and they want things to be more perfect. I don't know, really. It must be really tough for them.
MR: Do you have any advice for them from either a business or creative standpoint?
MH: Being creative is about the only thing we can do ourselves that no one can change. We can write these songs that deal with current conditions--that's our contribution. What happens to it after it gets to the world and the people that turn the knobs is another deal completely.
MR: The ultimate goal is still good music though, right?
MH: Yes, that's what I mean. We're trying to get music across and write songs that deal with the current condition, but if you have rules that won't allow you to play certain songs because it has humor or a less than popular emotion in it that you don't want on the radio, then you're at a deadlock. Especially when you have program directors that don't want anyone to play things of that nature.
MR: Yeah. You mean when it's conforming to or is the result of consulted radio programming, right?
MH: Yeah. It gets in the way sometimes. Sometimes it doesn't.
MR: Speaking of opinions and speaking your mind, one of my favorite tracks on this new album is the song "What I Hate." Can you tell us a little bit about that song?
MH: Thank you. It was meant to be twice that long, but we cut it in the middle because it was six minutes long. There was a whole lot of bitchin'. (laughs)
MR: (laughs) Well, I related to quite a bit of it. That song makes you realize that there's a lot of stuff to be pointing fingers at still.
MH: There's a lot of things in America that still need to be corrected. Those were just a few of them.
MR: What do you think when you look at the landscape of America right now?
MH: We had a couple of good things happen recently. For instance, the recent passing of the tax cut on the payroll tax, the two month extension. That was really important to people financially, especially around the holidays.
MR: Absolutely. What do you think of the polarized atmosphere in our government right now?
MH: I don't like it. It's hard-boiled and not likely to change. I don't know what the answer is and there doesn't seem to be anyone that does because the condition of the world economy is terrible at this moment.
MR: And to some extent, those people currently in positions of power are going to get blamed for the problems anyway, especially Obama.
MH: I think that people are smarter than that. I don't think that there's anyone out there that would argue that one man was responsible for making all this occur. I can't go for that. Obama had nothing to do with the economic collapse in England, you know? Those things are also affecting our economy.
MR: Right. It's very interesting that you mentioned that, because the discussion hasn't really been about the fact that this is a global issue, it's not only a problem within the American economic system.
MH: Well, right now, the world's leading economy is China and we owe them a lot of money. If we knew the whole truth, we'd know that they're probably telling us what to do. It's not Obama. Whoever gets elected next term will probably not do much better. I think we have a long ways to go to correct all of our bad checks.
MR: Do you feel that things need to change in an abrupt way to maybe shake things up?
MH: The last time we came out of a depression, we entered World War II. I don't know if that's any indication of what's to come, but I think some people may be thinking it. I certainly hope that doesn't occur because we've got nuclear power weapons now that we haven't used so far but are likely to appear in the next big conflict.
MR: We are also currently coming to a sort of close to the biggest military conflicts and economic money pits that we've seen in quite some time, so that may help change things up.
MH: Well, where are the guys who are coming home from all of those conflicts gonna work? What are they gonna do? It presents another big bump to the unemployment.
MR: Do you think that that's something that needs to be addressed immediately?
MH: Most definitely. We've got to give them someplace to go. Has America gone away while they were gone?
MR: Very well said. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on all of that with us, and getting back to the album, another great track on the album is "Laugh It Off." It's also important to laugh things off, at least to some degree, right?
MH: You gotta roll with the flow, you know? Things happen on the golf course...if you want something done, go out and play golf with somebody. The deals that I've made for several albums that I've put out were made on golf courses. The purchase and sale was made out on the ninth hole. (laughs) You have to do things differently in order to get them done because things are different than they were in our father's and grandfather's days. Little politics take place in every venture that you go into.
MR: Ah, but even in social situations, it seems that someone is always trying to put one over on someone else.
MH: Well, they are! Even if you don't like that way of doing things, you've got to be aware of it or someone'll run you over.
MR: (laughs) Very true. Back in 2010, you got an award for Outstanding Contribution to American Culture from the Kennedy Center. Can you tell us your memories of that event?
MH: That was absolutely wonderful. I got to meet some of the people in charge and associate with some other great artists and minds like Paul McCartney and Oprah. We were kind of thrown together with nothing to do but find out about each other so we all kind of took advantage of that time and got to know one another.
MR: Did Willie Nelson come?
MH: Willie and Chris were there later - at the dinner. I saw them both there.
MR: And on the new album, Willie joins you and your son on the song, "Working Man Blues."
MH: That's right. He and I have another duet thing coming out called, A Horse Called Music that will be coming out soon.
MR: What is it like getting together to make records with him after all these years?
MH: Well, we both know what to do so we don't have to take time explaining things. We work really well together. He goes in and sings one time and then I go in and sing one time and that's it. It's a pleasure to work with Willie.
MR: Hey, real quick, what was it like being interviewed by Tavis Smiley recently?
MH: It was wonderful. He's a pro.
MR: That's great. Merle, is there a certain point when you're recording a track that you usually realize, "Man, this is a great song"?
MH: I can tell you about a situation that occurred in the studio. We were doing an old Bob Wills song and the rhythm guitar player stood up in the middle of a take and said, "This song isn't any good! I've got a better song in my pocket than this." So, I asked him what it was and he said the title of the song is, "You Were Always On My Mind." Willie and I looked at each other and I told the guy that Elvis had just done the song and I wasn't sure if I wanted to do that right now. Willie looked up and said that he'd do it and six million records later, I'm telling you the story. (laughs)
MR: Wow. Are there any other stories like that?
MH: No, that's the most impressive story I can tell like that. Willie just jumped up and recorded that song that Elvis had just made popular.
MR: Excellent insight on his part. It's also a bit of a miracle, isn't it?
MH: It is. I mean, Willie was destined to sing that song. Elvis did it okay, but he didn't sing it like Willie.
MR: I'll bet you called him immediately after you heard it for the first time on the radio.
MH: I was there when he recorded it. That song was his from the first time he spoke up in that studio. When he said he'd do it, I turned and looked at him and thought to myself that he was probably the only one in the world that could pull it off, especially following Elvis.
MR: What a great story, Merle. As far as your family goes, would you say that you're passing down the tradition and legacy of your music to your children?
MH: My son has certainly gathered up a great deal of it. He turned nineteen recently and he's in my band because he's the best guitarist I can find. He gathered up all that knowledge before he was twenty years old when it took me fifty or sixty years to do the same thing. That's the difference in today's learning speed, kids have this source of unlimited information now. They can go to the internet and look up anything they want. We used to have to listen to records over and over, fuss with putting the needle back to the same spot or song over and over, and they don't have to do that anymore. It's paying off too. They're able to do some things now that our generation could have never learned, you know?
MR: Absolutely. Was there a reason that you chose to redo your song "Workin' Man Blues," especially with Willie and your son?
MH: I think that that song is my son's favorite song of all time because when he was a little kid, he would also ask me to play that 'Lurkin' Man' song, again. (laughs) He loved it from his childhood, so I did that song with him so that he could sing it again.
MR: That also reminds me of another song of yours that I enjoy quite a bit, "A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today."
MH: You know, my wife has been bringing up that song to my attention. She thinks it might be a good one to do again.
MR: I think that would be a great one given the current economic climate.
MH: You're right. You're the first one outside of the family who's brought that song to my attention, which makes me remember that my family's intuition is pretty good.
MR: (laughs) Nice. You have had such a gigantic career over the years, is there any one thing in particular that you're really proud of from your catalog of work?
MH: Wow, there are so many--"Workin' Man Blues," "Mama Tried," "Today I Started Loving You Again," "Silver Wings," and "Hungry Eyes." Those are all really special songs, you know? I call them gifts. I don't know how I wrote those songs. If I did know, I'd write something else that good. Those are gifts from Heaven and I appreciate them and I'm proud that I was their interpreter. I didn't sit down and write those songs, they just kinda came to me. I can tell you where I was when I wrote "Workin' Man Blues." We were riding through Arizona and I said that I needed to write me a song like the "Folsom Prison Blues." Bill said that Johnny Cash wrote some prison blues that got people every time. I thought I needed to do the same, so I wrote that song.
MR: Merle, I was reluctant to bring this up, but what are your thoughts on, "Okie From Muskogee" all these years later?
MH: Willie Nelson told me that if I'm ever tired of it he wants it. (laughs) It's a song with a lot of different messages, but I think the overall message is about pride. There were people in the nation that didn't believe in the hippies' activities and those people had a right to have a song as well as the hippies had several. So, I wrote them a song from my father's standpoint because he hailed from Muskogee, Oklahoma, and it seemed at the time that there wasn't enough national pride in America. That's why I wrote it.
MR: Do you feel the same today about our sense of pride in our country?
MH: I think we're short of it, everything is about the dollar now. We used to have streamline passenger trains crossing this country that lost money every year but they remained because of pride in the railroad system. Does Warren Buffett have no pride? Does he not have enough money to put together a low-budget, low-cost streamline train that goes from, say, Chicago to LA? You know he's got the money, but where's the pride. I mean, he's the guy who owns Burlington Northern, Santa Fe. I admire his entrepreneurism, but where's his pride?
MR: Is it your feeling that a sense of pride for this country should motivate these billionaires to re-stimulate this economy and get America going?
MH: Absolutely. That's what's lacking. These entrepreneurs need to be proud enough to put together things that will benefit the American public. They might lose money for a while, but think of the work that it would create if people in that position were proud about something and went out creating things like that. There are a lot of things to be done, and I think a lot of it comes down to pride. Pride in the nation and in what we're doing. We have to spend a little money to regain that sense.
MR: Merle, it seems that you are not lacking in pride for your music, country or your family.
MH: A man couldn't be any more proud than I am. God has blessed me and if you don't believe in God, take a look at my life.
MR: When you look back on some of the troubles you had in your youth and the person and musician that you've become today, what do you feel it was that brought you through? Was it God? Was it personal growth?
MH: A combination of all of the above. But the blessings are obvious. I mean, a man that's 75 years old doesn't usually have a 25-year-old son. I was gifted with these children and they're both so individual. They've never smoked, drank, or taken any drugs, and they don't have any desire for those kinds of things. They don't fall into the category that you regularly read about at all. Talk about being proud. I'm not only proud, I'm amazed. And my wife is the prettiest 50-year-old lady I've ever seen in my life.
MR: Do you feel that your children are a testament to their good upbringing from you and your wife?
MH: Well, it could be a lot worse. (laughs) Could be a whole lot different, so I'm just thankful and proud. I'd be crazy if I wasn't.
1. Working in Tennessee
2. Down On the Houseboat
3. Cocaine Blues
4. What I Hate
5. Sometimes I Dream
6. Under the Bridge
7. Too Much Boogie Woogie
8. Truck Driver's Blues
9. Laugh It Off
10. Workin' Man Blues - with Willie Nelson and Ben Haggard
11. Jackson - with Theresa Haggard
Transcribed by Evan Martin