You don’t have to like country music to think Merle Haggard is a badass.
Sure, he wrote and recorded some of the most timeless classics in American music, from “Okie From Muskogee” to “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink.” But just as relevant to his legend, he’s rubbed elbows with train hobos, gone through wives like tic tacs, and served time in more prisons than even the most committed career criminals, including a stay in the infamous San Quentin (where he first saw Johnny Cash perform in 1958). Over a decade later, he was given a full pardon for his legal indiscretions by then California Governor Ronald Reagan. And more recently, he was inducted by Governor Schwarzenegger into California’s 2010 Hall of Fame, in a roll call that included non-perps like Barbra Streisand and James Cameron.
Now 73 years old, Haggard continues to live up to his outlaw reputation with more authenticity than musicians half his age. He survived lung cancer with the unblinking grit of John Wayne (although, unlike the Duke, he quit smoking after losing a chunk of his right lung.) Last week, he was the subject of an American Masters’ documentary called Learning to Live With Myself, where everyone from Keith Richards to Robert Duvall testified to Haggard’s badassness. He released a new album earlier this year, I Am What I Am—yes, I asked him, and no, it has nothing to do with Popeye—and it’s already one of his best-selling records in almost 25 years. For a guy who’s cheated death more than most of us cheat on our taxes, the fact that he’s still making music and touring the world and not, as common sense would suggest, on life support in some unbearably sad Nashville hospital, waiting for a helpful roadie to pull the plug and let him die with dignity, is proof that he’s exactly as hardcore as his legion of fans have always believed.
During our phone interview, I learned several things about the man known affectionately by his friends as “The Hag”. One, whenever he laughs, he has a cough that sounds like a grenade being detonated under a wet down comforter. And two, he tells stories with the same narrative consistency of Grandpa Abe Simpson. But unlike the Simpsons patriarch, and pretty much all older people who brag about the exaggerated brutality of their youth, Haggard’s tales are actually true.
Eric Spitznagel: The adjective most often used to describe you is “outlaw.” Do you think it’s meant as a compliment?
Merle Haggard: That term does seem to get used an awful lot when people talk about me. Well, I like to think what they’re meaning to say is that I’m somebody who goes against the grain and tries to do what’s right.
I’ve always thought outlaw meant criminal. But you’re not breaking any laws with your music, right?
Not that I know of. We might not be doing country music in the way Nashville would recommend, but I don’t think it’s illegal.
Do you ever wake up in the morning and think, “I’m in no mood to be Merle Haggard today?”
(Long pause.) Well, why in the hell would I do that?
You’ve never wanted to take a weekend off from living up to everybody’s expectations?
I’m thankful in the highest way for the life I’ve been given. The only thing I don’t like is signing autographs. I think it’s unfair to sign for two or three people and then leave everybody else mad. So in my later years, I just stopped doing it. Otherwise, I don’t think I’ve regretted anything about my life. I’d have to be some sort of goddamn fool not to appreciate it.
There’s a song on your new album called “Oil Tanker Train,” where you sing about growing up on a boxcar. That’s just lyrical hyperbole, right? You didn’t seriously spend your childhood on a train car.
I did. This was during the Great Depression and, like a lot of people, my father migrated from Oklahoma to California. He bought a vacant lot of land in this little oil town, and there was an abandoned boxcar on it that he converted into a home for our family. You wouldn’t know what it was if you were just driving by. But if you walked up and took a closer look, you’d be, “Oh yeah, this used to be a boxcar!” We were a stone’s throw away from a railroad track, and every day these big trains loaded with crude oil would go by the house and shake the rafters. Even before we could hear it coming, the ground would start vibrating. You’d think it was an earthquake.
Didn’t you jump on moving freight trains as a kid?
Yeah, we used to go up there and put pennies on the railroad track and try to jump in the open cars when the trains passed by. Our parents never knew, of course. They’d have killed us if they had.
Do you have any tips for beginners? What’s the Merle Haggard formula for successful freight train jumping?
Well, first thing is you gotta keep pace with it. If you can’t run as fast as the train, it’s never going to happen. Also, keep your eyes in front of you. A lot of people just look at where they’re jumping, and that’s how accidents happen. One time I was trying to get on a train and I hit one of those railroad switches. It knocked me hard, sent me tumbling through the air backwards. It should’ve killed me, but I got up without a scratch.
So there was really no difference between your childhood and the life of a train hobo?
I rode freight trains from 1950 to about 1956 and I experienced some hobo jungles in some different places. I remember one time I was in a boxcar with nine hobos, and when the train stopped on an incline, I jumped out and grabbed all this canned food from another car and threw them into our boxcar. And those hobos, maaaaan, they got so mad at me for that.
What the hell for?
They were like, “We’ll get 50 years in the prison for that!” They didn’t want no part of it.
What a bunch of paranoid hobos!
Well, that’s the way it goes sometimes. But there was one old man, he was sitting back in the corner, and he flipped me a can opener and said, “I’ll eat ‘em with you, son.”
And then he told you, “I’m not a stabbing hobo, I’m a singing hobo”?
Uh, no. (Long pause.) I’m not sure what you mean.
Were most of the hobos you met friendly and non-stabby?
There’s rules and laws in any hobo jungle, and in most cases they abided by those laws. There were some bad apples in there, but they were mostly people you could probably depend on if you knew them personally.
You went to San Quentin, right?
Indeed I did.
Just based on the prison’s reputation alone, was being an inmate there both legitimately terrifying and the most awesome thing you’ve ever done?
I was scared to death. I was just 19 at the time, and I’d already been in a lot of jails. San Quentin is the last place you go. I wasn’t really that bad a guy. They just couldn’t hold me anywhere else. I escaped 17 different times, so they sent me there because I was an escape risk. When I walked out on the grounds of San Quentin, I was scared. I was there two years and nine months.
You must have a thousand great prison stories. What’s one of your favorites?
Well, there was a guy in there that I remember real well. His nickname was Shitty Fred.
Shitty Fred. Now, Shitty Fred was totally crazy and he should have been in an institution. Every once in awhile he’d pull some sort of a stunt. Like one time, he got himself a raincoat in the middle of summer, a rubber coat, and he packed all of his pockets with shit. He was walking the yard and when the guards weren’t paying attention, he climbed up on this scaffolding and perched himself up there. Come count time, he wasn’t in his cell, so 5,000 men couldn’t eat till they got Shitty Fred off the scaffolding. There were about six guards and it took them an hour and a half to get Fred down, because they were being bombarded by human shit.
Mr. Haggard, I believe you’ve just scared me straight.
Nobody wanted to be around Shitty Fred. He used to come to the mess hall with feces spread all over him, and a big ole grin on his face.
You know who could use some jail house pointers from you? Lindsay Lohan.
I feel sorry for her because she’s such a lovely creature and such a talented person, and she’s also a spoiled brat. I don’t know if they’ve put her in with the rest of the inmates. I doubt that they would, but if it happens, she may have to fight her way out of a couple things.
So your advice to Lindsay is, be prepared to brawl?
She has to be honest, and she has to let the other prisoners know that she doesn’t feel like she’s any better than they are.
That could be a problem.
Well, they’ll change her mind about that. (Laughs.) When I was in San Quentin, I paid attention the whole time I was there and I made sure I didn’t borrow anything from anybody. If I told somebody I was going to meet them on a Tuesday, I met ‘em. I learned that it’s better to be honest, because you can’t get away from your lie.
It’s not like you just hide out at the Chateau Marmont and wait for everything to blow over.
It won’t blow over. (Laughs.) It will blow you over.
If nothing else, hopefully Lohan stays away from anybody named Shitty Fred.
Yeah, don’t get around Shitty Fred. He’s bad news. I really do feel sorry for her. She’s going to have to straighten out her life, otherwise she’ll be dead by the time she’s 30. That’s the bottom line.
I love the story about how you met Johnny Cash. You guys apparently reminisced about his San Quentin concert, and he said something like, “I don’t remember you playing at that show, Merle.”
(Laughs.) Yeah, he thought I might’ve been one of the performers. I had to tell him, “No, I was in the audience.”
Is it true that whole exchange took place in a men’s bathroom?
It is, yeah. It was 1963, and we were doing the same television show in Chicago. It was this big building with a radio station at the top and all these recording studios for TV. I went down in the basement to get ready and take a leak.
And as if by kismet, Cash just so happened to be pissing at the same time?
I didn’t know it at first. I was aware there was somebody standing beside me at the urinals. But you don’t look over at the guy. And then I heard him say, “Haggerty, you ever do anything like this?” And I looked and it was Johnny Cash and he had a pill in his hand.
And I said, “Yeah, let me have it.”
You popped pills with Johnny Cash?
It was just a Dexedrine pill to help you stay awake. Back in those days, everybody took ‘em. The preachers took ‘em. It wasn’t a big deal. I stuck the pill in my mouth, and then Johnny pulled a flask from under his vest, which was loaded with wine. And he said, “Here, you can wash it down with this.”
I can’t think of a better way for two country music icons to be formally introduced.
Well, Johnny always said to me, he said, “Merle, you’re everything that people think I am.”
And that’s coming from a guy who washes down prescription meds with booze in public restrooms.
(Laughs.) We had some crazy times. He and I became real close friends. I think we would’ve killed for each other.
You recently gave up smoking marijuana for health reasons. Do you miss it?
Well, if you’ve ever smoked pot… Have you ever smoked pot?
I quit but I never got over it. Anybody who says it’s not habit-forming is a damn liar. I’ve had friends tell me, I can quit marijuana any time I want. Bullshit! (Laughs.) I called a friend of mine, a big music producer whose name you’d probably recognize, and I said to him, “I heard you quit pot,” and he’s like, “Yeah, I did.” I asked him, “Well shit, how long do these goddamn withdrawals last?” And he said, “It lasted 45 days for me. And then I just started smoking again.” (Laughs.)
Speaking of temptations, there’s a song on the new album called “Stranger in the City,” about a touring musician who doesn’t sleep with groupies. That can’t be based on you, can it?
I love women. But sometimes you’ll see one of these groupies backstage, and she’s really pretty and she’s got everything going for her and you know she’s never been told no in her whole goddamn life. When I was younger, I’d get a kick out of turning them down.
How would you do it?
I’d just tell them, “You don’t think a guy like me has somebody waiting for him at home, somebody who depends on me and who thinks I’m going to be a good guy? And here you are, trying to take me to bed. You must think I’m an asshole.” (Laughs.) Of course, there were a lot of times I didn’t turn them down. But now I’m married to a beautiful woman, I’ve been with her for 20-something years, and I just got disgusted with the rest of it. All of those tricks that usually work, that Satan uses, I’m not going to fall for that stuff anymore. But I know as soon as I say that, he’s going to test my ass again.
Or maybe test you with some 20-year-old groupie’s ass?
(Laughs.) Sure enough. You can bet on it. I just want to be on the right side. I figure my life is close to being over. I could have a stroke in the next few seconds. And I’m at an age when nobody would even do an autopsy. But, uh…
(A perfectly timed and downright eerie pause.)
(More silence. Haggard unleashes a violent, raspy cough.)
You O.K., Merle?
(Laughs.) If there’s a God and there’s a hereafter, I’m going to be there.
(This story was originally published, in a slightly different form, by Vanity Fair on July 30, 2010)