“If a song actually had an opinion, that’s the first thing they’d throw in the trash.”


Merle Haggard frets about freedom and keeps an eye out for helicopters

Sunday, October 7, 2007; Page M02

Merle Haggard — the author and singer of countless country classics, from “Mama Tried” to “Workin’ Man Blues” — has long been known as the poet of the common man. Or, as he tells us: “I’m the poor man’s Alan Greenspan.” Having survived San Quentin, heart surgery, divorce, road life, record label troubles and the IRS, the septuagenarian from Oildale, Calif., is still making music: There was an album and tour this year with fellow Country Music Hall of Famers Ray Price and Willie Nelson — and last week Haggard released “The Bluegrass Sessions.” It’s the first foray into bluegrass for the honky-tonk hero who helped pioneer country’s Bakersfield sound.

— J. Freedom du Lac

You turned 70 in April. Given your earlier hell-raising, hard-living ways, did you ever wonder whether you’d be around at this age — let alone writing and recording and touring regularly?

Well, I’m just glad to be here. As to how I got here, I’m not sure.

Do you consider yourself a poet?

No. But a lot of things I write don’t have melodies, and I guess that makes you a poet.

In the new “What Happened?” you wonder where America went. Any theories?

In the last 10 years, we’ve lost most of what we claim to be fighting for. We have a police state — helicopters flying above houses, looking to see if they can see some marijuana. America has gone downhill.

You’re not shy about expressing your political opinions, are you?

I should be. I got a family, and there’s somebody liable to kill me. But it’s still a free country — to a point. You can’t really say a lot of things nowadays or somebody in a helicopter might come down a rope on you.

If country radio still had you in regular rotation, would there have been a Dixie Chicks-style backlash when you sang, “Let’s get out of Iraq/And get back on track”?

Well, that’s a hypothetical. And that’s not gonna occur. (Laughs.) Radio doesn’t want substance. If a song actually had an opinion, that’s the first thing they’d throw in the trash.

You’ve written a song about Hillary Clinton. Where did that come from?

I predicted 15 years ago that Hillary would be president of the United States. Bill Clinton is still the number one diplomat and Democrat in the world, and we get him as a package deal. Anybody with the least bit of intelligence is going to say, “Maybe we need some diplomacy.” It’s more about him than it is about her.

Your politics have moved left over the years. Do you think the people who know you for “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” are confused?

I hope so. There’s been a change in America. I wrote “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and I meant every word of it. I still mean every word of it. But there are some conditions in the United States that don’t resemble Americanism. Where are the people that care about freedom? We’re overseas fighting for it and people are giving their life for it when it doesn’t even exist here.

You were quite a troublemaker when you were growing up. Did you ever worry that your kids might actually take after you?

That was one worry I forgot about. I didn’t think anybody would follow in my footsteps because the mud was too deep.

You’ve been to the White House and the Big House [on a robbery conviction]. Which was more memorable?

The White House was more strenuous. [Laughs.] I’ve been blessed with meeting a lot of great statesmen over the years. But I’ve also met a lot of police officers. The Big House — being in San Quentin — was a condition that you can never forget.

Do you feel legendary?

I don’t think so. I just feel like an old guy, 70 years old, that had a great career and is still around.

Complete this sentence for me: If I knew then what I know now . . .

Well, I wouldn’t go to prison.

2 Responses to ““If a song actually had an opinion, that’s the first thing they’d throw in the trash.””

  1. […] seems Merle Haggard talks more politics then ever these days, here’s a short Q&A with the Hag. Complete this sentence for me: If I knew then what I know now . . […]

  2. I finally got the chance to see Hag in concert last year and he put on a great show. Being a singer/songwriter myself, the Hag is one of my country heroes, and I’m glad to hear him call it like it is.

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