20 Questions With Merle Haggard

He Talks About Johnny Cash, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Britney Spears

Merle Haggard is a very talkative guy, once you get him going. However, he doesn’t really care to talk about contemporary country, but that’s OK. He has plenty of other things on his mind.

Having just released The Bluegrass Sessions, his first such album, the Hag took time to answer fans’ questions about staying away from computers, making a movie about his life and why he can’t seem to get on TV.

1. What was it like to be part of the music scene in Bakersfield, Calif., in the 1960s?

It was tremendous. It’d be hard for you to understand. It was like a carnival. There were maybe 20 nightclubs that were putting out good entertainment and maybe four or five of them were top-notch, with people that went on to be famous. Starting in 1960, I was a raw kid. I’d been in trouble and didn’t have much going for me, and I was able to claw my way into that clique and it gave me a start in music. I was able to play in the clubs for a few years before I had to present myself as a well-known artist. I had this experience under my belt, which I don’t think is available nowadays for an artist. There no place for an artist to go unless he goes to New York or New Orleans, which is in such a shape now that it can’t support much. And I’m suspicious of a lot of things about New Orleans. I think maybe they control them damn storms and got rid of the nightlife, the queers and the musicians and everybody. … I mean, those storms always turn right and go across Florida. For some reason or another, [Katrina] came directly in there, and it makes me wonder if they laser-beamed it and heated the water.

2. In those early days, how did you deal with a rowdy crowd or a crowd that was just nuts?

It really wasn’t that way. There were always a couple of honchos that took care of people like that. It was their job. They were famous for it. It was better than having the police around. … There was no law enforcement that came around and made you sit down in your chair. The club either had bouncers on payroll, or if somebody insulted the waitress, there’d be somebody to take care of ’em. Back in the days of the Mafia, Las Vegas, Bakersfield and Los Angeles had their own law, and it was much safer. People didn’t get robbed. Now it’s almost like the criminals have an intent to beat the law. Las Vegas is a terrible place. Bakersfield is a terrible place. Didn’t used to be that way. I was in both places and worked in both towns, and you could walk down the streets anywhere in Las Vegas in the ’60s. The Mafia ran it then, and they didn’t want nobody robbing nobody. They made sure of it. A lot of people wouldn’t understand that. They don’t realize what kind of an America there used to be. They just don’t know.

3. Do you have a favorite entertainer?

I think Elvis and Johnny Cash were probably the entertainers of the century. Then after that, you would have to go to groups. In my mind you’d have to go to the Beatles and things like that. Right now I think the greatest entertainer is Britney Spears. Goddamn, she’s using everything available. (laughs)

4. The other day I scored a vinyl copy of your tribute to Bob Wills. Is that a favorite album of yours?

Yes, it is. I have done, over the years, about four or five tribute albums and they’re the ones that are my most favorite because without their musical influence, I probably wouldn’t be in the business. Those are very important albums. I did one to Wills, I did one to Jimmie Rodgers, I did one to Elvis. It wasn’t actually a tribute album, but I did one for Lefty Frizzell and all of his songs. I enjoy those kind of albums.

5. When you think of bluegrass, who do you think is doing the best work out there?

I think bluegrass may be the only country music that’s really alive. You talk about roots, they may be the only people actually playing their instruments and refusing to use tuners and things of that nature. … There are some people around like Marty Stuart and Ronnie Reno that are still trying to hold it in the road. They’re friends of mine and people I asked to help me make that record (The Bluegrass Sessions). And it’s a minority. It’s a cult music, and I think it’s that way because it refuses to alter.

6. What do you think of Lynyrd Skynyrd?

Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded some of my songs and brought my attention to them way back years ago. You know, they’re two different bands. The one that got killed and the ones that survived, and there’s a tender place in my heart for them.

7. In the song “Pancho and Lefty,” what is your interpretation of the lyric “the dust that Pancho bit down south ended up in Lefty’s mouth”?

You know, I don’t really know what that meant. A lot of that song I don’t know what it meant. It sounded like the overall message was that Pancho Villa and the federale Lefty were actually friends and the truth about the matter was never known. That’s the basic message I think.

8. I’ve seen a photo of you holding a guitar that looks like Jimmie Rodgers’ original Martin guitar. Do you own his guitar, or is it a reproduction in the photo?

No, it was the real one. I just went to the [Country Music] Hall of Fame and borrowed it and recorded with it. I used it on a record. … The lady from the Hall of Fame was at the session, and I said, “What would be the chances of borrowing that guitar for a moment or two?” They went and got it and brought it over there. I recorded it on a song called “Valentine.”

9. One of my favorite songs you recorded is “Carolyn.” I know you didn’t write it, but when you heard that song, what is it about it that caught your ear?

Tommy Collins was a real close friend. We fished together, and so when he wrote something or if I wrote something, we used each other as sounding boards. He wrote a lot and I wrote a lot, and once and a while we’d come up with something we was really proud of. He was really proud of that, and I thought it was a great song, too.

10. Could you please explain your relationship with Gram Parsons and tell me what happened when he wanted you to produce his solo album, and what did you think of the songs he recorded of yours?

He came to my house when I lived in Bakersfield probably in the late ’60s, and we talked about what we were going to do. Shortly thereafter, well, he was dead. … Very complimentary. It’s a form of flattery when someone records your music, when they accept it that way.

11. Mel Tillis is being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this year. Do you have any favorite songs of his?

Mel is a great writer. I look at him as a writer more than a singer. I’m just glad to see it happen. He wrote things like “Detroit City” and many songs that I can’t name for you. I’ve always been a fan of his writing, and I think he’s a fan of mine also in return.

12. What do you think about mainstream country music now? How would you describe it?

“Perfect” is a good word. Perfect, always perfect. Nobody’s gonna take a breath. You’re not gonna hear breathing on it. Used to, you could hear Elvis breathe. You knew he was a man. But nowadays, it seems like everything is digitally perfect — boringly perfect.

13. Do you think country music will ever return to its roots?

No. There’s no roots there.

14. Who are some new artists in any genre of music that you enjoy listening to?

To make it a short and sweet answer, I don’t listen to the radio anymore, so that can put an end to those kinds of questions. And it’s not really the music. It’s the commercials. Television is the same way. You can’t even get involved with something you’re watching and then they run into commercials. And the commercials are 20 percent louder than everything else, and I just finally turned it off for the last time. I’m not gonna watch it anymore. I don’t care about hearing about the f—ing Iraq war. I don’t care about hearing any of it.

15. How do you try to keep up with the news?

There’s really nothing to keep up with. Hillary’s running for president and the guy from Iran came over and spoke. Some people say it’s like letting Hitler come over in ’39. You know, I think we resemble it in ’39, if you want my opinion.

16. Do you like to get online and download songs?

My son does all that for me. I got a 14-year-old that takes care of the computer for me and is also learning to play guitar really good. He does all that. … I just holler at him and say, “Hey, download me so and so,” and he takes care of it. I’ve vowed to stay away from the computer. It’s about to overwhelm me. I think that every time I have gone to the computer, I pick up the guitar instead, so I can play the guitar better than people who use computers.

17. Do you think you will be making a movie about your life?

Yeah, that’s actually in the works. It’s down to doing the first draft on the script. It usually doesn’t happen in one’s lifetime. They usually wait until you’re dead, so they don’t have to contend with you. (laughs) I’ve had an entertaining life, and to try to contain it all in two hours is a joke. So what you say is, “Now, look, this is a movie. This is not your life. This is sound bites and film bites from parts of your life.” It’s easy to get confused. You say, “Well, God, they didn’t tell this, they didn’t tell that.” People don’t understand that you can’t do that. You can only try to entertain folks with a bit of your life.

18. Did you ever see the film, Walk the Line, and what did you think of it?

When you imagine the great life of Johnny Cash, I don’t know. … I think the guy [Joaquin Phoenix] did as good as he could do. I think by trying to make a movie of Johnny Cash, you’re whipped before you start. I knew him too well to be entertained by it. I thought Reese Witherspoon did a great job with June, but the guy wasn’t really tall enough to be Cash. That bothered me a little bit. It didn’t really look like him. But some of the things in it were really good. It’s one that I’d watch again. I’ve watched it a couple of times.

19. I know you’ve recorded with Clint Eastwood. Are you a fan of his movies?

Sure am. I think he’s probably one of the best living directors and a great actor. I’m a fan of his films…. I did Bronco Billy with him. I thought it was a silly movie at the time, but over the years, I think he did a really good job of fantasizing that situation. Unforgiven was one of the best I’ve seen him do. … He doesn’t do anything anymore unless it has substance. Those are the things that I’m missing in entertainment, all the way around, so he’s high on my list.

20. Looking back over the years, is there one decision that you would do differently?

Oh, there are a lot of them that I would change. I did something early in my career that I’ll never get over. They’ll punish me for it the rest of my life. I had a chance to be on the very first worldwide television show of Ed Sullivan’s, and we had seven days of rehearsal. There was no taping in those days and you had to rehearse seven days. I was doing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and I was playing the part of Curly. Every day, there was more choreography that became part of my part, and I told them in the beginning that I didn’t do that kind of thing.

About six days into the deal, we had six days of rehearsal, and on the day of the shooting I told them to cram it. And they had me dancing to the tulips between Jeannie C. Riley and Minnie Pearl, and there would be a queer to grab my ass every time I came around where he was at. I just finally told ’em, I said, “Hey, I’ll be in the bus. You’ll find me in the bus.” … Jeannie C. Riley came out and cried and cried, trying to get me to go back, and I said no. I said, “I’ve built up a following of truck drivers and people of that nature, and they wouldn’t find this very funny.” Since then, there are enemies of mine that lay in the grass and weeds that show their ugly head every once in a while to keep me from going on Larry King Live or something of that nature. The only thing I can figure is I’ve got an enemy out there in the television community.