Merle Haggard recently released a new album, I Am What I Am, his first project for Vanguard Records. Recorded at his Shade Tree Manor recording studio in California, he recorded it with his longtime band, the Strangers, which now includes his son, Ben, on guitar.
During a recent tour stop in Mesa, Ariz., the Country Music Hall of Fame member talked to CMT Insider producer Terry Bumgarner about his new music and how his attitudes have changed through the years while also detailing his experience as a cancer survivor. Here’s a portion of that interview:
In the reviews, almost everyone says this is a more personal album than you’ve done in recent years. Do you feel that’s an accurate statement?
Haggard: Well, the songs are about me, and the subject has been successful for me and probably the only thing I really know anything about. I just happened to have the songs that I had here in order to put this album together. There is a couple of tunes that I didn’t write. There was a couple other tunes that didn’t make the album that’ll be on a forthcoming album. This is what we wound up with. I think I wrote eight or nine on there. That’s a pretty high average for me. I’m usually more like half the album or something.
Maybe more than a personal album, the word that comes to mind is “reflective.” Do you find as you get older that you do tend to look back a little bit more than you did 15 or 20 years ago?
Your values change, and our opinions change. We become different people as we grow older. We’re not the same people we used to be. At least, I think, the wish of most people is to improve upon personalities, but a lot of people don’t have a chance to document the way they feel at the moment. And this record is a good one … a representation of my overall thinking right now. If people like it, it’s really good because it’s really coming from me. I was working my way down to an acoustic album. I was just gonna do me and a guitar, and the title song off of this album is just me and my guitar, so that was where I was heading and probably where I’ll go on the next album. The success of this title song, “I Am What I Am,” has been phenomenal. It’s stopping the show. We’ve been closing the show with it.
I think one of the reasons that song connects with people so much is because it’s as close as any of us are going to get to you sitting down on a couch, picking up your guitar and playing for us.
It’s just a series of explanations, and they’re really true. They’re hanging on every line like they haven’t done in years, and it’s a great feeling to think there’s a possibility I might have a hit record here.
The album apparently debuted higher on the chart than anything you’ve released in over 25 years. That’s got to be a good feeling.
Yeah, it is. Willie [Nelson] and I put out records the same day, and both of us are having success with it. I reckon. And many times, we’ve paralleled each other in the past. We’re talking about doing a fourth album together in the near future.
You said we’re not the same person that we were 25 or 30 years ago. In what way do you think you’ve changed the most?
Well, most everything that I thought I knew, I didn’t know, and I think opinions change over the years. That’s why most politicians are liars — because if one of them changes their mind, it upsets a lot of the party. But that’s human nature. We change. We do not stay the same. We have different skin every so often, and I think our whole being changes and is ever changing. And we’re not the same, any of us.
On the album, you sound like a guy who’s very content right now, and it seems to me like a lot of that has to do with family. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah. Kris [Kristofferson] and I did a tour together. We’re both in the same boat in that area. We have a real stable family life. My wife and my son and my daughter are all very confident in their own place in our family. We’ve got a little piece of the American dream that some people never even experience. I’m getting a second chance at being a father, and I’m 73 years old. I mean, that’s a blessing from God. That’s what it says in the Bible. Abraham was blessed when he was old, and I take it as a blessing that I can have this family and then have it be exciting enough to write about.
It’s got to make performing that much more fulfilling because you’ve got both your wife and your son onstage with you.
A whole lot of different things come together at the same time for a surge, but there’s been a great surge of interest in my overall career in the last few months, so I’m gonna give all the credit to the old man upstairs. I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s happening.
You mentioned Kristofferson and Willie. Do you think there’s increased interest in you three guys maybe because people are beginning to realize that guys like you aren’t coming around again?
I hope so. That suits me fine. If that’s a fact, it’s great. I’m sure it’s more complex than that. I think it’s a combination of the availability on the Internet and the opportunity for people to get what they really want rather than being force fed with music like we have been over the past 20 years or so. And now our audience is varied quite a bit in age. A lot of young people are coming in to our concerts for the first time because of something they saw on the Internet.
A lot of those people are looking for something that’s real, too.
Yeah. And, you know, you know the power of television is that somebody mentions your name, so this is the reason I’m in the business. … I always wanted to know who Jimmie Rodgers was. I wanted to know who Hank Williams was. And I think people are still that way. And we’re becoming I think hard to entertain. We’re overwhelmed with entertainment. You know, everybody can sing. There’s karaoke now, and there’s just so much competition, so it’s I think it’s taken a while for all this to be available for the cream to rise to the top. But I think it finally will, and people will land on things that they find to be real. That seems to be what they’re searching for with reality shows and all that.
You had a cancer scare not that long ago. How are you feeling?
Good. It’s been a year ago. It was November 3, ’08. I went in for surgery and had the top part of my right lung removed. It had a suspended, isolated cancer in there, and they got it. I didn’t have to do chemo or anything like that, and I healed up real well. I think that it makes you look for ways to clean up your act when you get that close to the deal. I was 71 years old, and I said, “Uh-oh. Lung cancer. That’s what I need right now.” Insurance companies know when to kick you out. There I was — 71 and hear “lung cancer,” but as it turned out, it’s been a miracle. They got it, and I’m alive, and I didn’t have to do any of that old nasty stuff. So there is another great reason for appreciating this period that I’ve been given.
Didn’t you have to watch your brother go through a battle with cancer?
Yeah, and I’m creeping up on the same age that he was at when he died. He was 74, and I’m 73. I thought, “Well, you know, by the time that lung cancer gets me, I’ll be just about 74.” So it all looked like the stars were lining up in the wrong direction there for a while.
What’s it like when the doctor says, “You’ve got cancer”?
He told me in May of ’08, and they kept wanting to do a biopsy. Theresa, my wife, and I are holistic when it comes to medicine. We try to stay away from all the obvious stuff, and we were both afraid of the biopsy — afraid it might spread through that method, so I didn’t do it. So all this time — from May until November — we really didn’t know what the condition was. … I told them I’d let them operate on me, and I said, “We might as well do the biopsy, too. We haven’t done that.”
And when we first got the news, they thought it was the bad kind. They thought it was small cell, and had it been that, I probably had less than a couple months to live. Theresa went through a 24-hour period where she thought it was the small cell. And she went to a black church that was going on at the hotel that we were staying in. She went in there, and those people laid hands on her and prayed for me, and she came back and told me what she’d done. And at this time, she thought she knew what the outcome of the biopsy was. She thought I was gonna die. She thought I had less than two months to live.
And she was down there in the church praying for me. The next morning when they got ready to get around to tell me what the biopsy was, they said, “We don’t understand it. It looked to be small cell, but it’s not. It’s a slow-growing, isolated condition, and I think we’re gonna be able to get it if you want to get it.” So if you don’t believe in miracles, then just look at my life.
How much did that experience influence your songwriting on this record?
I don’t know. I haven’t really listened to the record in that way. I’m sure it had some effect.
I guess everything ends up having an effect on your writing.
Yeah. If you come up with something, and if you admit something or describe something about yourself in a different way, maybe it’s interesting. Mark Twain did that. I loved his writing.
Do you find that your writing is different than it was 30 years ago?
God, oh, sure. Yeah, I demand more sophistication. I just won’t mess with it unless it’s up to a really high standard. And it’s a standard I judge my own work by. Not other people’s work but mine.
I would imagine you’re probably the harshest critic you have.
Oh, I’ve got lots of songs that people haven’t heard.
And I’m sure they never will.