Merle Haggard, country music legend, Kennedy Center honoree, can't end the ride

Country legend Merle Haggard is profiled in PBS's "American Masters".
By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 11:17 AM

IN LAKE CHARLES, LA. At 73, two years removed from lung surgery and two months from a related chest infection, Merle Haggard should be at home recuperating on his idyllic 189-acre ranch near California's Shasta National Forest.

Instead, he's parked outside a Gulf Coast casino, wondering why the battery on his tour bus keeps conking out.

"It's not much fun," Haggard says of this nomad's life, a career the beleaguered country legend once described as "a 35-year bus ride."

In 2010, the ride is headed into its 49th year and Haggard doesn't know how to get off. "It's got its claws in me from all directions," he says, adjusting a fisherman's cap that covers thinning wisps of silver and white.

He's talking about the financial obligations that force him to spend his golden years performing in smoky casinos and beer-soaked honky-tonks across the country - a monthly $80,000 payroll he feels duty-bound to pay the musicians, managers and helping hands who have served him so faithfully through the years.

But it isn't just loyalty that has Haggard parked outside the L'Auberge du Lac Casino on this crisp November afternoon. It's his constant restlessness.

While he frets over the glitchy battery, his wife, Theresa, takes their dog Fanny for a walk around the parking lot. Ask her how long she expects her husband to maintain this grueling schedule and she says, "Forever," hoisting the little terrier up into her arms.

"It's the traveling, the moving, the rambling fever," she says. "I really do believe it's a disease you get."

If so, it's one Haggard had long before his single "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" topped the the charts in 1966, announcing his arrival as the crown prince of the Bakersfield sound - a lean, unvarnished brand of country music that took hold in the orchards and oil fields of rural California. That's where Haggard spent his hardscrabble youth, flirting with crime and falling in love with country music.

At first, his transgressions got the best of him. But at 23, he emerged from a 33-month prison stint at San Quentin to eventually become one of the most commanding figures in the genre, defining the "outlaw country" movement alongside Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings - all while trying to outrun a string of broken marriages, drug problems and the IRS.

Matched with his humble upbringing, those difficult years make Haggard feel out of place among this year's five Kennedy Center honorees.

"It's gotta be the most prestigious award not usually given to somebody from the dirt," he says.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company