Okie in our midst
Life in the Northstate with country music icon Merle Haggard
Probably most famous for his 1969 redneck anthem “Okie from Muskogee,” Merle Haggard—aka The Hag, aka Merle the Pearl, aka the “poet laureate of the hard hats”—is right up there in the rarefied air of country superstardom with the likes of Willie Nelson and The Man in Black, the late Johnny Cash.
A triple threat known for his poignant old-school country songwriting, his musical ability on both the guitar and the fiddle, and his signature gravelly voice that can bring a tear to the eye of the crustiest old truck driver, Haggard is bringing his longtime band The Strangers (which includes his wife Theresa and son Ben) to Laxson Auditorium on Sept. 29 for a show that’ll likely make you want to kick yourself if you don’t attend.
It’s The Hag, for cryin’ out loud, and the 72-year-old legend is not going to be around forever.
Haggard was born to Okie dust-bowl refugee parents in a boxcar outside of Bakersfield, his father died when he was 9 years old, and he started getting in trouble at age 14. He was sent to San Quentin State Prison in 1957, when he was 20 years old, for robbing a Bakersfield bar. When he sings the lyrics to his 1968 No. 1 song, “Mama Tried” (“In spite of all my Sunday learning, towards the bad I kept on turning/ ’til mama couldn’t hold me anymore … I turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole”), Haggard ain’t just talkin’ the talk. He’s walked the walk. (Haggard was paroled in 1960, by the way, and pardoned by former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972.)
These days, Haggard is chillin’ with his family at his 189-acre ranch in Palo Cedro, eight miles east of Redding. I recently had the pleasure of speaking by phone with the man who helped create (along with the late Buck Owens) the “Bakersfield sound” of twangy, down-to-earth, country music, and I asked him some questions about being a local boy.
CN&R: This is the first time I’ve ever interviewed a legendary superstar whose phone number is right here in the 530 area code.
Haggard: Well, God bless you.
How long have you lived in Palo Cedro?
Well, we moved here, I think, in 1990.
How does living in rural Northern California affect your music?
Well, it’s a lot of extra work. We [the scattered band members] usually meet in the middle of the country. It would be better if I lived in Texas or Oklahoma. But I love the weather here, and the mountains, and the shoreline in Fort Bragg—seems like it’s got everything right here. I can’t find anything east of here that compares.
Why did you choose to settle in Northern California instead of somewhere else like, say, Bakersfield?
Well, you know, I lived in Bakersfield for 37 years, and I’d always come north to fish. I’ve fished in the [Sacramento-San Joaquin River] Delta and I’ve fished all the lakes around Modesto. I went up to Bridge Bay [at Shasta Lake] years ago … and then I saw an ad for a cabin for sale on Shasta [Lake] and I knew [from experience] that it really did look that good. I bought [the property] sight unseen and it ended up looking better than I even imagined. I stayed on a houseboat for about eight years, and it sort of evolved into the condition of having a house.
Didn’t you do a bunch of commercials for Corning Ford some years ago?
Well, you know, I did some commercials for about four or five years. We traded out vehicles. We reported it to the IRS. [Haggard is alluding to prior trouble with the IRS that is as legendary as that of Willie Nelson.]
If you had a motto, what would it be?
Always tell the truth.
What would you like to see happen in this country over the next, say, five years?
I’d love to see America regain its stature in the world and have the economy go back to a sensible place and have inflation disappear.