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Merle Haggard, country music legend and pioneer, extends legacy with new record

John T. Davis

Merle Haggard needs no introduction. At least, he shouldn't. As one of the giants of country music in particular and American music in general, Haggard is Mount Rushmore material, up there with Hank, Willie, Bob Wills and George Jones.

At his peak, from the '60s through the '80s, he notched a dazzling string of 26 No. 1 country singles. The best of that body of work, including "Mama Tried," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Sing Me Back Home," "Workin' Man Blues," "If We Make it Through December," and "Big City," were plainspoken paeans to all the blue-collar workers, prisoners, star-crossed lovers and American dreamers in Flyover Country. Along with Buck Owens, he turned Bakersfield, Calif., with its harder-edged, honky-tonk take on country, into an alternative to the Nashville Sound.

And yet, in an era when Nashville pumps out one buffed-up, carefully vetted pretty boy after another, Haggard can seem almost an afterthought. He can't buy a hit on mainstream radio, and his elder statesman status is insufficiently acknowledged.

But he's still a vital artist, as his latest album, "Working in Tennessee," attests. A mixture of autobiography, political and musical commentary and wistful romance (including the haunting "Sometimes I Dream"), the album extends Haggard's impressive legacy into the second decade of the 21st century. He spoke by phone from his ranch in northern California.

American-Statesman: First of all, happy birthday. You turned 75 last month.

Merle Haggard: I feel just as good as I did when I was 74. I couldn't ask for anything. I'm doing great.

Two musical scenes — in Bakersfield and Austin — emerged in counterpoint to Nashville. Why do you think that was?

I think it's because of the oil fields and the bars that were in both places, and the music kind of came out of there, in contrast to the churches that (inspired the music) in the South. It used to be just like Texas out here. They were a lot alike music-wise and entertainment-wise. The drunk driving laws and things of that nature pretty much shut down all the honky-tonks out here (laughs).

Your family, including your son, wife and daughter, are all over the album and they perform with you on the road. Why is that important to you?

Ben (his son and guitarist) has been onstage with me since he was 15 and he's going to be 20, so he's got that under his belt. My wife works when she's available, she has a big responsibility of running my businesses and my ranch, but when she's available she enjoys coming out and singing with my daughter, Dana. My middle son, Noel, is opening the shows and has got his own following.

It gives you the best of both worlds. You don't have to miss your children growing up, and they're involved by choice and it makes for a happier go-round, you know? If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

To me, "Sometimes I Dream" is the most haunting song on the album. How did it come about?

I visualized it, and (daughter) Janessa and (wife) Theresa were both there and helped me put it together. At the time it was written, I was thinking of another period of time, and kind of got into that time machine and looked at it from that point of view.

You were a migrant child of the Depression. Has the Great Recession seemed like déjà vu?

You know, ever since we've gone off the gold standard and started writing checks and using credit cards, it's been downhill all the way. Nobody's actually seen the gold in Fort Knox since 1974.

If you look at it real close, you'll notice a decline in the actual gross domestic product. We're just not responsible for the kind of output that there used to be. We had a country that worked 24 hours a day, three shifts at every company. Now, most people are working three days a week if we get that type of job. How do we expect to regain our position in the world working three days a week versus 24/7?

We used to have something to do. That seems to have gone away.

Yet in "Laugh It Off" you seem to take a lighter view of circumstances.

You've got to show both sides of the coin. You got to go with both emotions. There's some people that don't care, and for them then, well, laugh it off. And then there's people that feel like I do for the most part. I'm totally disturbed with certain things that the government is doing with this country.

Do you still have ties to Nashville?

I've got a lot of friends there, and a certain part of the business will always be there. The Grand Ole Opry and Opryland are still there, and those are places we'll always have to play now and then. We just got through playing at the Ryman Auditorium on the last tour.

It's changed a lot, and it's gone from what it was to what it is, and it's different. I like to hear somebody like Hank Williams or somebody. I don't know if either one of us could get on the radio nowadays.

Here's a legacy question: What are you most proud of?

I'm proud of the whole gamut — the writing and the guitar playing, the history, the musicianship. I'm proud of the band I created. I've had a band on the payroll since 1965. They've been voted Touring Band of the Year eight times by the Country Music Association.

Right now, in my life, I'm proud of my family. I've got my boy playing guitar with me, and he sounds like he's 60 years old. He's just knocking everybody out. All the people in the business are shaking their heads about him and I am, too. There's not anything I could be blessed with right now that's comparable.

Is there any goal you'd still like to achieve?

It would be great to have one more big hit record before I say goodbye. I guess I'll probably go to my grave feeling like there's another song I ought to write. I feel like there's a great song that I haven't written yet, and it's still yet to come. That's my reason for getting up every morning.

Merle Haggard and the Strangers