It was a sunny morning in 2004, country music icon Merle Haggard was at his home near Lake Shasta, a place he calls Shade Tree Manor. I called Merle to talk about a show he had coming up at the Eureka Theater. The hot topic on TV the night before was the 40th anniversary of the Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan.
What have you been up to lately?
I’m fixin’ to go out on another tour; it’s what I’ve been doing for 40 years, since exactly the same time The Beatles came to America. I was already out there playing.
Do you remember where you were playing back then?
Sure, I was playing around Southern California. It was just before I put the band together in ’65. I was workin’ what you call one-nighters – just myself and a bass player, doing clubs in the Southern California area, which in those days were many. What you have now, you have one club in Los Angeles, the Crazy Horse. Well, there was about 40 or 50 Crazy Horses, clubs in every town from San Diego all the way to Seattle. It was all open territory for me, and that was what I was doing, I was jobbing those clubs.
The title track on your latest record, Haggard Like Never Before, is about longing for home. It leads me to believe you’d just as soon be at Shade Tree Manor instead of “singing in a honky tonk, working for the door.” With all the records you’ve made, I’d think you’d never have to get out from under those trees again.
I don’t have to go out on the road, except to keep my 67-year-old body useful. It has to be used–and the only thing I know how to do is what I’m doin’. If I don’t do that, then I sit here and deteriorate–osteoporosis becomes a killer. I’m 67 years old and I was supposed to be dead two years ago, according to the stats and all that. I don’t listen to the doctors.
Do you have anything in particular in mind for this coming trip out to the coast? Is it part of a longer tour?
Well, we do certain sections of the United States each year. The dates in California are places we hit on an annual basis. [Eureka is] a job we could play about once a year. Those are valuable to me; I don’t live in Nashville and there’s not many places you can drive to within 500 miles, so you can be home the next night. I have about 5,000 miles on my ass every trip that nobody else hears about because I choose to live out on this end of the country and work. The center of the country is probably where I should be. But Eureka is close by. You know I lived over there one time for a couple of months. I worked in an Arcata plywood factory.
So it’s really true. I have a friend who worked in the mills. He said that was the legend: that you worked here when you were on the lam.
Yeah, they arrested me in Arcata. I was 18 years old. They came out, I was pulling green chain at the plywood mill there.
Had you skipped out on bail or something?
They’d put me on a road camp. They gave me 90 days for petty theft and it was all a misunderstanding. I was running an honest junk dealership and I got into it with a guy who had some junked cars out in the middle of nowhere, no fences, no signs, nothin’.
I had three men workin’ for me out there; we’d been out there three days carrying this goddamn bunch of old junk somebody had thrown down a ravine, and the police came down on me. I looked up, it was about noon, we were all stripped to the waist, working our asses off hauling this iron. They come down and told us we were on private property and I’d been stealing their shit for a year.
I said, `Does it look like I’m out here stealing stuff? I’ve got a goddamn bunch of guys hired’ and the cop said, `It’s true, there’s no sign that says this is private property.’
The guy [who owned the property] said, `I don’t have to have any goddamn signs.’ He said, `I want these people arrested.’ I told the guy I`d return everything I`d taken. I said I did not intend to be a thief, that’s why I was out there working at noon. He didn’t care.
So they arrested me and I went to jail for 90 days, and I was really pissed, `cause I really hadn’t done anything. It was a really big deal in my life. I went to jail and got sent out to a road camp; I just didn’t stay. I was there about five days, then I left and caught a ride with a guy coming north. I wound up in Arcata working in that plywood factory.
And they tracked down the wanted man?
They came in there and handcuffed me, threw me down spread eagle, then took me away. Once again they came in and arrested me when I was workin’. That was two, three times in a row. What if I’d been trying to do something wrong? That was one of the reasons Ronald Reagan gave me an unconditional complete pardon for everything I was charged with. That was an unusual thing for a man my age, `specially because the celebrity factor was working against me.
I suppose since you wrote a number of songs about your misdeeds, they could take your songbook and read it in court as evidence.
When reading through my record, you can find in there that I was never represented; I was railroaded again and again. All I ever did was grow up too quick. I was always going to work somewhere and somebody’d come arrest me. (He laughs.)
And you really did turn 21 in prison.
I really did. And it was a shock to me. That was not where I wanted to be at 21. (Laughs even louder.) There seemed to be a period in my life where it was just out of control; nobody could’ve changed it. It was like somebody was purposely causing these things to occur so I`d have something to write about. If it wasn’t for the cops and ex-wives, what would a guy have to write songs about?
We lost a great one today. Fare thee well, Merle. Thanks for all the songs…
interview by Bob Doran – 2003