Back in 1973, the country was in the grip of economic woes. A beleaguered Republican president was overseeing an unpopular war abroad and gradually had lost the support of the American people.
The musical response from Merle Haggard at the time was “If We Make It Through December,” a sobering song that spent a month at No. 1 on the country chart and became one of the singer-songwriter’s signature compositions for its compassionate look at the plight of working people across the land.
If we make it through December / Everything’s gonna be all right I know / It’s the coldest time of winter / And I shiver when I see the fallin’ snow
Three and a half decades later, Haggard sits in the living room of his Northern California home on 168 rolling acres, a few bumpy, dusty miles outside of Redding. Along with the rest of the country, he’s made it through another difficult December -- his 72nd -- into a new year.
His cobalt-blue eyes are trained on the widescreen TV monitor mounted on the wall across the cozy room. The Bloomberg News channel is on, and stock prices crawl relentlessly across the bottom of the screen on the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration as the 44th president of the United States.
Most stocks, and Haggard’s spirits, are up.
He confesses “I didn’t vote for Obama,” but can’t deny the political and emotional sea change that the Illinois senator’s ascension to the chief executive’s office represents. “We’re probably guilty of living up to the Constitution for the first time in the history of America, which is really something to say,” Haggard says softly, looking a little battle-scarred in his Army-surplus jacket, black T-shirt, blue denim jeans and golden-brown ostrich boots.
Such a feeling has taken his muse in the opposite direction from the doubt he felt back in the dark days of Vietnam and Watergate. On the weekend before Obama took his oath of office, Haggard knocked out a new song called “Hopes Are High” and quickly recorded a demo version in one of the two studios he has set up at home. He points the remote in his right hand toward the audio system under the TV screen, clicks a button and his own voice comes wafting out, as light and happy as perhaps it’s ever sounded:
We’ve got the bad times behind us
And the good times up ahead . . .
And we’ve got sunshine and a new guy
And hopes are high
Haggard has double reason to be feeling hopeful: He’s just won a bout with lung cancer, and now is apparently clear of the disease after surgeons removed a lemon-size lump from his chest. He’s more than ready to get back on the concert trail and will bring his celebrated band, the Strangers, back to the Southland for a performance Thursday at the Grove in Anaheim.
“I got real lucky, I tell you,” says the man widely considered the greatest country songwriter since Hank Williams and one of the genre’s most influential singers ever. “They got in there, they got it all, and there wasn’t nothin’ else in there . . . I didn’t have to do no chemo, no radiation, I just had to heal up. How lucky can you get?”
A nagging cough
Haggard didn’t have a compelling reason when he decided to go in for a chest X-ray last May, just an awareness that it had been a couple of years since his last one, coupled with a nagging cough he figured he’d better look into. The X-ray revealed a lump in his right lung, a little more than an inch in diameter.
He didn’t have a biopsy, but opted to wait for a while to see what happened. A few months later, it had grown, he said, so he went in for surgery in November. He chose to have the operation at Memorial Hospital in Bakersfield, near his birthplace in Oildale.
During the procedure, doctors spotted a second growth they hadn’t seen on the X-ray, and removed that too. Both were cancerous -- non-small cell lung cancer, a slower-growing type than the more aggressive oat cell cancer. “I didn’t realize how bad a shape I was in before the surgery,” Haggard says, a simulated fire roaring in the fireplace to his right, “until just the last couple of weeks, when I got to where I could cough and sneeze without hurting.”
On the mantel above the fake fire are two Grammy Awards, one for his 1984 vocal on his single “That’s the Way Love Goes,” the other for a multi-artist collaboration on the song “Same Old Train” in 1998. The Grammys sit below a plaque he was awarded by the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation for his contributions to upholding the “blue yodeler” tradition of Rodgers, often referred to as “the father of modern country music” and one of Haggard’s heroes. A couple of DVDs documenting another of his major influences, western swing pioneer Bob Wills, occupy the lower shelf of the coffee table in front of him.
Haggard says he’s guilty of “too many years of smoking” -- 40 years smoking Camels, unfiltered. He decided to level about his vices early on with his two kids from his 1993 marriage to Theresa Lane, figuring it was better to be straight with them about that and his late-'50s stint in San Quentin, where he’d landed after trying to escape from county jail following an arrest for burglary. He addressed his prison time poignantly -- and publicly -- in the 2000 song “I’m Still Your Daddy,” asking his kids not to judge him too harshly for youthful transgressions.
The result of being straight with 19-year-old daughter Jenessa and 16-year-old son Ben, he said, is, “We’ve raised a couple of kids who don’t remotely resemble what you’re always hearing about.”
The same goes for his relationship with Theresa, who also sings in his band: “We’ve been together for 20 years now, and we’re still happy.”
Jenessa, who is studying culinary arts at Shasta College, comes through the adjoining kitchen and leans into the living room to say bye and a quick “I love you” to her dad before heading off to an evening class. Her brother is still in high school, yet recently started playing lead guitar in his father’s band during breaks. Ben also has started sitting in with other groups and gigging out as far south as Bakersfield every few months.
“He’s playing so good now -- he’s playing like I’d like to,” Haggard the elder says, speaking unhurriedly, as he usually does. “It took me 40 years. Now they’ve got these computer skills and he can go study George Benson, or any given person, study what they’re doing, run it back and forth until he figures it out and then move on to the next guy.”
Ben was along for two sold-out shows Haggard played in Bakersfield right after the first of the year, homecoming concerts that came quickly in the wake of his surgery.
“I might have jumped the gun a little bit,” Haggard says. “I wasn’t as happy as I’d have liked to have been. But they were fine.”
After his surgery, doctors prescribed a morphine patch to ease the pain, and Haggard says the withdrawal symptoms were tough when he stopped it after a month. He’s now down to taking the occasional herbal cough suppressant.
Probably the biggest lingering effect of the surgery is on his voice. “I’m able to hit higher notes, but was not able to hit as low a notes,” he says. “They’ve got to come back with use. They’ll be slower to return, but those are the most valued in my work.”
A prolific talent
As a singer, songwriter and recording artist, Haggard has been one of the most valued country musicians of the past half century.
He charted more than 100 country singles from 1963 to 1989, when country radio started turning increasingly toward younger voices. He’s written hundreds of songs that have been recorded by hundreds of singers, among them: “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Working Man Blues,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (a favorite of Richard Nixon’s), “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home.”
“I’ve never carried a tape recorder, or for that matter even a pad or pen with me,” he says. “I figure if something’s not worth remembering, it’s certainly not worth writing down. I’m sure I’ve probably lost a thing or two, but I feel like the good stuff does get through.”
Haggard’s good stuff has included resonant portraits of people struggling to make a living, to do the right thing, or to live with the consequences when they’ve failed.
He’s looked at patriotism from different angles, from the fierce pride of 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which positioned him as a political conservative, to 2003’s “That’s the News,” which raised poignant questions about the resolution of the war in Iraq. Haggard put it out just a month after President Bush had declared “mission accomplished.”
Suddenly it’s over, the war is finally done.
Soldiers in the desert sand, still clingin’ to a gun
No one is the winner, and everyone must lose
Suddenly the war is over: that’s the news
Escape from Nashville
Despite his stature as one of the titans of country music, Haggard has spent remarkably little time holed up in Nashville. “They’ve always treated me with a lot of respect in that town, but I just didn’t want to live there,” he says. “I lived there in ’76. It was like living in the middle of a circus, and very much overbearing.
“Somebody’s liable to call you at 8 o’clock in the morning. In fact, I remember Johnny Cash calling me one morning at 8 o’clock, saying, ‘Haggard, we been up all night cutting records. . . . Would you come up here and help us?’ 8 o’clock! Sometimes they’d call and it wouldn’t be Johnny Cash either . . . It just wasn’t my cup of tea.”
So he returned to California, but not Bakersfield. Instead, he set up a houseboat near Lake Shasta, which he had loved for its fishing and the quiet.
“Before they finished Interstate 5 up here [in the mid-'70s], it was absolutely pristine. There’s 169 miles of shoreline, 10,000 waterfalls, three major rivers. I spent a lot of time on the lake then. The fishing was great. You could find yourself a cove and not see another human being for a week. There’s very few places like that in the United States.”
He moved to where he lives now near Redding because of two things: “I had a family I wanted to raise. And jet skis. They start up about 6 in the morning. . . . That ruined the quiet.”
The stillness on his own remote homestead is broken only by the sound of pine trees rustling in the wind, or sometimes by workers helping out one another on an ongoing string of improvement projects. One of Haggard’s grander ideas is to devote 100 acres of his spread to solar-energy panels, using what he needs to power his home and selling the rest. “We could generate enough to power about 700 homes. What better thing could you do with your land than that?”
He nodded toward the living room window overlooking a nearby field where Theresa was riding a tractor, plowing the earth to be planted with vegetables and fruit. “She’s the man of the house,” Haggard says, with just a hint of irony. Haggard’s job is to help raise Jenessa and Ben and keep making music.
Even more than his voluminous recordings, publishing royalties from his extensive trove of country songs assure him and his family financial stability for the rest of his life.
“I make enough off my royalties that I could sit on my ass and get fat,” he says with a laugh. “But I’d rather keep working and stay skinny.”