At the age of 75, country music legend Merle Haggard is unafraid.
Whether the topic is the environment, immigration concerns or the state of country music in the new millennium, Haggard hardly needs an invitation to share his opinions. During the course of a half hour or so, Haggard easily proffered thoughts on how politicians, songwriters and television evangelists share myriad things in common. He's carved out a niche as an insightful and sometimes subversive social critic, and uses honesty to deliver his personal message. It doesn't damage his cause that those messages just happen to make up a massive chunk of the classic country songbook.
Merle Haggard performs Saturday, June 30, at Billy Bob's.
Consistent health issues have forced Haggard to reschedule gigs since discovering he had lung cancer in 2008. Never one to rest too long at his California ranch, which he's maintained for 35 years, the Country Music Hall of Famer is releasing records at a steady pace and hitting the road in an equally admirable fashion. His 2011 release Working in Tennessee and 2010's I Am What I Am are both fine examples of an artist with more left to say. Though both albums feature Haggard's signature combination of Western swing and Telecaster-rich Bakersfield country, it's his plainspoken lyrics and observations on the world that compel the listener to study his tunes and not merely hear them.
"I write a lot about current events and the condition of my family and the condition of the world, as well as the condition of our political scene," Haggard says from his ranch, nine miles north of Lake Shasta in Northern California. "These days, everyone can comment in so many ways, so I comment on all of these things with my music."
When speaking or singing about politics, your standard artist is going to pick sides, regardless of the singer's mostly peaceful intentions. In 2008, Haggard famously supported Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's failed run for the White House with the song "Hillary." This time around, however, Haggard is singing a different tune by not singing one at all.
"I've got to be honest," he says. "I met President Obama and he was a nice fellow, but I'm not going to vote for him, and I'm not going to vote for Romney. So, that leaves me without many options. I don't see much that I like in either of them. It's a tough world and I don't think either of them is capable of representing this country right now."
Haggard, who has had high-powered political figures courting him since the Nixon era, thinks candidates these days are too timid to speak about the matters that affect America in the most dramatic fashion.
"There are many things that present a bigger problem for this country than the Middle East right now," he says. "Neither [Obama nor Romney] wants to address them. They're purposely staying away from the economy, for example, and it leaves me kind of empty. I don't have a good prognosis for the country over the next couple of years."
Even though Haggard admits to feelings of fear for this country's immediate future, there's little else that fits into that category. He sees the advancement of technology and the Internet as the way in which fans from future generations will be able to cut through the current Top 40 cesspool and follow their hearts toward talent. Even though Haggard takes shots at the Music Row mainstream on Working in Tennessee's "Too Much Boogie Woogie," singing, "There's too much boogie woogie and not enough Connie Smith," he realizes an answer to such complaints already exists.
"The involvement of the Internet will help everyone get their proper due," he says. "More fans will be made because of it. The best talent will be found and people will discover Johnny Cash easier than they would have otherwise. Can you imagine a situation where Johnny Cash's career isn't being recognized?"
A bit of helpful yet profound advice from a famous friend many years ago has kept Haggard from being too worried about what people think of his views.
"Willie Nelson said to me one time, 'You might as well be yourself, because somebody just may end up liking you.'"
The way he sees it, being honest isn't about being bitter or hurtful. Haggard understands that truth can be expressed without torching every bridge you walk across.
"I don't ever want to insult anyone. I have six children, and if I brag about one of them, I might accidentally piss the other five off. In that case, I haven't really done anything wrong, but I've still offended them. I try not to do that with my writing, while still being honest and telling the truth that I'm trying to tell. Everything you say in the limelight matters."
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In reality, it's not Haggard's open-book nature that makes him unique; there are plenty of pop-culture personalities who are more than happy to share and televise their thoughts. What makes Haggard's opinions worthy of attention is the same candid quality his songs have long carried, piercing directly into the hearts and lives of listeners everywhere. His songs are believable, and the way in which he writes them showcase an intimate honesty, which breeds authenticity.
"The only thing I know anything about is me. I've had a most interesting life, and as long as I write about it and give some melody to it, it'll turn out wonderful."
Even at that point, The Hag is still unafraid to admit he doesn't have all of the answers. But "over 15 years of intense Bible study" has given him a sense of what the world needs in order to find them.
"Faith is the only way we're going to make it. None of us are smart enough to do it on our own."