Merle Haggard has seen – and written about – it all.
Going on 76, with most of those years spent in the music industry, Haggard has carved out a niche as a social critic, performing everywhere from handmade stages to the White House.
Although he’s receiving more awards than writing songs these days, he says he still has a message: Respect your elders.
You’re considered one of the greats for many of the country (and rock ‘n’ roll) artists following behind you. Who are your greats?
Most of my mentors have passed on. There’s a lot of people to respect. I went and paid tribute to Chuck Berry earlier this year. He inspired me and a lot of other people. It’s hard to keep up with so many new artists. Country music is not like it used to be, but it’s big now.
Speaking of artists following behind you, what have your thoughts been toward Blake Shelton’s comments about “old fart” country music? That older musicians are out of touch?
Mr. Shelton will have to pay for that probably more than he realizes at the moment. It’s not a good thing to do. It’ll probably bite him in the ankle some day.
Children are easy to feed something new. I have a different taste in music. I like something you can listen to rather than something that’s just like the song you heard before. If I accidentally get onto that new country station, I can’t get to the volume knob early enough. It’s kind of back at you, Blake.
You’ve had dozens of hit singles, picked yourself up from hard times and rolled with the good. How have you kept yourself in the forefront of country music?
I don’t talk about my elders, for one thing. I’ve done a lot of tribute albums to people I respected and people I felt like showed me the direction I wished to go. I’ve done three tribute albums in my life to people I admired, and I think Blake Shelton ought to do a tribute album. … It wouldn’t be hard for him to pick out someone who blazed the trail for him. He could dedicate it to the old farts.
When you started, you were a maverick with your progressive honky tonk that broke musical barriers and addressed societal stereotypes. Where do you see your role in music today?
Mainly, what I’m doing lately is receiving awards and making the Kennedy Arts Center. Someone said all you’ve got to do is show up. Mainly, what I’ve been trying to do is show up.
I’m showing up in the studio. We have a new studio at my ranch. I’m doing a lot of recording, and I always have a new album I’m working on. As long as I’m able – and I’m able – I’ll be making records.
You’re writing new material?
It’s hard to write about something positive; there’s not much of that going on. If you write about the news, it’s going to be negative.
Four or five years ago, I stopped writing about the news. I got disgusted of it. If I were to write my feelings about the situation our country is in, it would be too sad to play.
Inflation is about to eat our lunch, and if we don’t get a hold of the financial condition of this country, we’re not going to be the leader anymore. I don’t think we’re the leader now.
What has kept you writing music all these years?
The people. Without the demand, we wouldn’t be going on a tour. There’s no way to fake that. You can be Blake Shelton or Merle Haggard, but when it comes down to selling tickets – he might want to build his show up to where he can entertain people long enough to call it a show. He hasn’t heard the truth yet. He ought to be ashamed of himself.
I don’t think the majority of people feel like he does. He’s drinking his own bath water.
What do you think about the journey your music has taken you on?
Music is two things to me: I love it. I do it because I love it, but it’s also the only thing I know to do.
I started out young with the intention of being able to work a barroom or to work a three-piece band in some little night club. Everything else has been unexpected.
This current tour includes some huge venues, big casinos and then Schroeder Hall out in Goliad County. It seems so much more authentic, truthful, more you.
You play every kind of venue. We’ve been to the White House, to the Kennedy Art Center, places I never dreamed they’d let me in, way above my normal standards. I’ll be proud to play to this area and play an old dance.
What sort of mark do you want this tour to leave?
We intend to do a different show every night. We let the crowd dictate what they want. It’s my intention to sell every ticket and sign every autograph.
It’s something you try not to worry about. I do an impromptu show. If I were to worry about it, I’d screw up for sure. We intend to do the very best shows. When we come off the tour, we hope to hear we did good.
You’ve been vocal about your strong faith. What are you praying for these days?
I’m 75 years old. I just pray that I can have health and be able to meet my commitments. It’s hard to promise that you’ll be in Texas six months ahead of time because I don’t know if I’ll be on this earth.
That’s what I pray for – the health to live up to my commitments. I’ll do it as long as I’m able and as long as I enjoy it. That’s what I require.
I’ve been coming to Texas to do shows since 1965. I just want to invite all the old folks – and the young folks – to see me one more time.
You’ve been kind of harsh on Blake Shelton. Haven’t you ever said something you wish you hadn’t?
I’m sure that everybody who gets more than they got coming gets an ego trip. I know Blake, and I picked him out of all the people who’s out there to be a star.
He’s got the looks, he’s a big ol’ boy. He’s got all the attributes you’d expect to find in a star. He shouldn’t put down the old folks. We’re the ones who brought him into the world, we can take him out.
When I see him next, I’m just going to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear.
I don’t call myself an old fart. That’s Blake’s words.