Music Keeps Merle Haggard Young

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There may be no way to stop country music legend Merle Haggard. And if he has his way, he is never going to stop.

As the man who brought the world “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried,” and dozens of other hits, the 76-year-old is considered one of the most important country music figures to come from the 1960s. His many musical accomplishments certainly support that statement.

Over the course of 65 albums, Haggard has launched 40 singles into the No. 1 position. He has earned two Grammy Awards, several Country Music Association nominations and in 1994, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Tack on a combined three millions plays of “Okie From Muskogee,” “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Big City” and you’ve got the makings of a country music legend.

“When I hear the word ‘legend,’ all I hope is that people aren’t over-exaggerating the situation,” Haggard tells The Times & Transcript. “It certainly is great to be considered the way they do, though.”

Haggard was born in 1937 just outside of Bakersfield, Calif., and didn’t have the easiest upbringing. His father passed away when Haggard was only nine years old, sparking a rebellious streak of sorts in the youngster that would see him drift in and out of reform schools as he grew up. At the age of 20, Haggard was doing time in San Quentin Prison. When he was released in 1960, Haggard immersed himself in the Bakersfield country scene, which also spawned Buck Owens, and made the decision to pursue music as a career.

“Around 1960, I was wiring houses with my brother and eventually started working four nights a week playing music,” Haggard says. “That was on top of working the usual five days a week at my regular job until eventually, music got in the way of my job. Incidentally, I never went back to my day job.”

Many traditional country artists, including Haggard, are having little luck these days breaking through the seemingly impenetrable walls of country radio. In an interview with The Times & Transcript last month, Sammy Kershaw said, “A lot of people in country music today want to be anything but country,” which indeed is a hot-button issue for many country-music purists. They argue that without the likes of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Sr., George Jones and, yes, Merle Haggard, country music would not have such strong roots.

Haggard admits that while much of today’s modern country music fails to appeal to him, he also recognizes that much has changed over the course of the last 20 years in the genre.

“There is a lot of what I’d call teenage noise that doesn’t appeal to an old guy like me in the least,” he says. “Kids have their own thing going on these days; I appreciate country music but not the same kind of country music that is popular. That is what they want now, however. Now that being said, there is a new kid on the block named Hunter Hayes who I think is doing a great job bringing country music into the present day.”

While some artists are inclined to scale back the scope of their touring efforts as they age, Haggard says that he anticipates this year being like many that preceded it, meaning there will be somewhere in the vicinity of 100 shows played. He continues to promote his 2011 record Working In Tennessee and shares that two of his next projects will pay tribute to Ernest Tubb and Bob Dylan.

“With Ernest, we went back and gathered up what we considered to be 15 of his best songs and tried to do them the same way that Ernest himself would have done. It is much the same premise for Bob Dylan but of course, we are putting a little more of a country spin on the songs.”

Asked if there are any imminent plans to scale back touring over the course of the next few years, Haggard laughs and says he doesn’t believe that he’ll be stopping anytime soon.

“It is no small feat to be playing 100 shows a year still but I have to do it,” he says. “Music keeps me young. If you’re in motion you try to stay in motion and if I sit down, I worry I am going to wind up dead. I play music out of necessity to stay alive. It helps me try to forget how old I am.”

Article published in the May 11, 2013 edition of the Times & Transcript

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