At 73, outlaw country music legend Merle Haggard is winning a new generation of fans.
Author Alan Light
“EVER SINCE I WAS a very young boy, I always enjoyed trying to put thoughts into rhythm and rhyme,” says Merle Haggard. “I do it for fun. I don’t put pressure on myself—I don’t sit down and say, ‘Okay, now I’m gonna write a classic!’”
Whatever his technique, over the course of his 50-plus-year career, Haggard has consistently created some of the greatest songs in country music history, including such masterpieces as “Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Hungry Eyes” and of course that ballad of jet-age yearning “Silver Wings.” His new album, I Am What I Am (Vanguard Records), is his 75th, give or take, and demonstrates that the Country Music Hall of Famer still has a sound and a story that’s all his own.
The record—his first collection of all-new material in five years— covers a wide and heartfelt emotional range, from Haggard’s earliest memories, on “Oil Tanker Train” up to “Mexican Band,” a raucous celebration of tequila. In recent years, the man behind “Okie from Muskogee” has gotten even more outspoken politically (increasingly liberal, he’s written songs protesting the Iraq War and supporting Hillary Clinton’s presidential run), and the album’s opening song, “I’ve Seen It Go Away,” presents a despairing look at today’s culture: “I’ve seen it all completely fall apart,” Haggard sings. “And I’ve seen our greatest leaders break their peoples’ heart.”
On the phone from his California home, a few days before heading back out on the endless road, the 73-year-old singer explains that the song represents something of a disappointed farewell to his political commentary. “I’m gonna let the younger people do the criticizing,” he says, “and I’ll take a look at the bigger picture and write about that.”
A knockout performance at last year’s Bonnaroo festival in rural Tennessee proved that yet another generation has embraced Haggard as the ultimate rebel—a sentiment expressed a few years ago by rising country star Eric Church in the song “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.” The man behind 40 No. 1 hits on the country charts estimates that two-thirds of his audience today is made up of younger fans and credits the internet with spreading the word.
“We got off the bus the other day,” Haggard says with a laugh, “and this family was there with a little four-year-old girl. And I heard her say, ‘Is that the man who sings “Big City”?’ They told me they were at the show because she wanted to come.
“It gives me a reason to wake up every morning,” he adds, “to know there’s some kid out there that’s going to discover my music today.”
ALAN LIGHT, former editor-in-chief of Spin and Vibe, has a seven-year-old son who’s also fond of guitars and trains.