Merle Haggard: “I’m a fortunate man”

A classic interview with the country legend from the Uncut archive

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At moments like this, the instinctive nature of Haggard’s easy facility with language becomes endearingly apparent: imitated/duplicated, the choruses just fall out of him. On cue, the radio plays Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”. Haggard looks at once glum and wistful.

“Cash and I were real good friends,” he says, softly. “But that movie [Walk The Line] was terrible, I thought. I mean, maybe if you didn’t know him it was okay, but… I can remember Bob Dylan walking around Cash in a circle, looking him up and down and saying ‘You beat any goddamn thing I ever seen.’ And that’s Bob Dylan, the hippest motherfucker there’s ever been. Trying to take a guy [Joaquin Phoenix] that’s five foot five and make Johnny Cash outta him… that was funny to me.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6EVZDbnmmFY

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I wonder if that outlaw peer group were really as much of a gang as they portrayed themselves.

“Aw, yeah,” he declares. “We’re still fans of each other’s work. If I can’t write something, I hope Willie [Nelson] or Kris [Kristofferson] can. I remember one time Willie was listening to a Kris Kristofferson record, and I walked in and I said to Willie, ‘I guess he’s about the best writer in the world, isn’t he?’ And Willie turned that sumbitch off, turned around and said ‘Yeah, after me and you.’”

The radio in Lulu’s moves onto “The Ballad Of The Green Berets”, the swaggering martial anthem made a Number One hit in 1966 by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler. It’s only sort of a country song, but it’s still the sort of country song which causes many people to mistake the genre for a crock of flag-wavin’, God-fearin’ sentimental schlock freighted with a menacing undertow of xenophobic suggestion that you’re not from round here, are yuh? It’s an almost amusing irony that the one country song that has been most often used to uphold that simplistic prejudice was written by one of the form’s most subtle and astute composers. Merle Haggard and The Strangers are still touring, these days mostly playing in casinos and theme theatres. Are they still playing “Okie From Muskogee”?

“Yeah,” he says.

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