At 74, the country music icon isn’t about to quit. He’s still writing music, winning awards, and on the road.
In the past 18 months, Merle Haggard has received a Kennedy Center Honor and been the subject of a PBS documentary. But he’s not looking back: The 74-year-old country music icon recently released Working in Tennessee, in which he reflects on his hardscrabble past and rails against greedy politicians and growing old. We called Haggard at his 200-acre Northern California ranch, where he’s making a tribute album to his country hero, Lefty Frizzell — and preparing for an intense schedule of tour dates that will run until the end of the year.
by Patrick Doyle
I would have liked to retire sometime in the past 16 years. But then you look at your expenses and the people you’re employing. All the money in the bank just flew out the window.
To bring a show to people, I’ve got to stay in shape. Some old guys — and I won’t name any — have let it go. They play two or three songs and bring somebody on for the rest of it. I want to do a good show. If I can’t, then I’ll go sit down.
I quit bacon about six months ago — it was the last thing I quit. It’s hard to eat good food when you have to contend with gravity. It’s a great enemy.
Sometimes you have to pinch yourself and say, “Is it true? Did all this occur?” It did, and I’m thankful. I don’t know how it’s gonna end. I’m in good health and probably gonna do at least another year. And another album.
I think I was most thrilled with meeting Ronald Reagan. He gave me a full pardon when he was governor of California and treated me well. Obama was a top gentleman to me too, but I don’t think being the president is his calling. He follows his advisers, but he doesn’t seem to step out and lead like a president.
I don’t think that young people have a handle on what they’ve lost. I feel like a preacher in front of a congregation. This country was built on three shifts every 24 hours, and now we’re talking about working three or four days a week. There’s nobody who wants to do the stoop labor, and there is a whole bunch of it to do.
I hope I’m a good dad. I made an effort of it. I got six children, and two are young. My wife is a gorgeous young lady. I’m an ugly old man. But I heard she’s in love with me. And that makes a difference, you know.
Well, it’s a new experience, you know, when they go inside you and take out something you’ve lived with all your life. It hadn’t spread. And the lung grew back. So three years now and there’s no recurrence — and it wasn’t caused from smoking. It was probably asbestos. They said it was a type of cancer that’s usually found in Asian women. And I’ve never had no Asian woman.
That’s true. Rather than smoking, now there’s edibles. The old brownie is always nice in the evening time. I use it to keep the blood pressure down.
We recorded that on the day that Cash died. We started a Johnny-and-June tribute, and it didn’t get done, so we went ahead and put this on the album. He was a good friend. I just don’t treat him like he’s dead. He’s gone to Jamaica.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 / January 2012 issue of Men’s Journal.