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

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.

Like retirement, peace and maybe even his own happiness, Haggard doesn't think he deserves it.

Rebel years

His bus takes up a dozen spaces in a parking lot dotted with filthy minivans that look as if they had just driven through the Oklahoma Dust Bowl Haggard's parents fled in 1935.

Merle was born in Bakersfield two years later and was raised in neighboring Oildale, where his father, a railroad worker, had converted an old refrigerated boxcar into a single-story home. Merle was only 9 years old when his father died, sending him into paralyzing grief and a troubled adolescence of train hopping, petty crime and repeat visits to various correctional facilities.

Between misdemeanors, he fell under the spell of Lefty Frizzell and Buck Owens in the Bakersfield nightclubs, and he scored a career-launching gig opening for Frizzell as a teenager. But the handsome young singer couldn't resist the pull of rebellion and was sent to San Quentin prison after robbing a restaurant in 1957.

Haggard isn't proud of those days and barely remembers getting the tattoo fading on his left forearm. Peeking from the cuff of his nappy black sweat shirt, it reads "P.S.I.," a reminder of his days at the Preston School of Industry, one of the juvenile detention centers Haggard fled numerous times in his youth.

"I have one on my back that I can't see," he says, referring to a second tattoo.

Of course, Haggard's toughest years inspired some of his most enduring songs: "Sing Me Back Home," a ballad to a prisoner on death row; "Workin' Man Blues," an ode to the underclass; and "Mama Tried," his signature penance to an anxious mother from her delinquent son.

"He came from humble beginnings, had a brush with the law and managed to turn those beginnings and that experience into the stuff of great art," says Jay Orr, vice president of museum programs at the Country Music Hall of Fame. "There are only a handful of artists I would even mention in the same breath when evaluating his impact."

That impact has been felt for decades. He has influenced the cool drawl of George Strait, the easy delivery of Garth Brooks, the storytelling of Jamey Johnson and the elegance of Joe Nichols, a singer Haggard sees as following in his footsteps.

But Nichols feels his hero will never be eclipsed. "He brings a real grit, a very distinct imagery," he says of Haggard. "As far as songwriting goes, I don't think anyone can mimic what he does."

'Okie From Muskogee'

In the late '60s, Haggard's songs began to resonate with a blue-collar audience far beyond Bakersfield, but it was 1969's "Okie From Muskogee" that thrust him into the national dialogue. With its unforgettable opening verse - "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD/We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin' right and bein' free" - the song attacked the decadence Haggard saw in America's rising hippy class and was quickly embraced by the right as a counter-counterculture anthem for a nation in the throes of the Vietnam war.

Always the individualist, Haggard was troubled to find that his voice was more powerful than he had known.

"I've learned that I should either take a stand or step aside," he says of the song's initial impact. "I think it was best for me to not take a side on it. . . . I'm liable to vote for the man more than the party. I'm not a good party man."

Here's proof: He's never voted in his life and remains doggedly nonpartisan.

"I can't be taking a side," he says. "I can't write songs about the country and appraise the condition. . . . I don't want to endorse anybody. I want to stay out of it."

That didn't stop him from accepting a White House invitation to sing at first lady Pat Nixon's birthday party on March 17, 1973.

"The next day was when Watergate broke," he says. (On March 18, Nixon's aides were warned that they would be arrested for refusing to testify before a Senate committee on Watergate.)

Then, in a moment of blissful political ignorance, straight-faced mischievousness or senior fog, Haggard asks, "Nixon - was he a Republican?"

His memories of Ronald Reagan, though, are crystal clear. "He had that charisma," Haggard says, his smile arching above his goatee, "and was really nice to me." As governor of California, Reagan pardoned Haggard in 1972, a gesture Haggard calls the greatest award he's ever received.

The 'big void'

If the '60s and '70s brought Haggard great success, the following decade brought great chaos. Ask Haggard about the '80s and he turns his head toward the windshield of his tour bus as if literally trying to see the sunny side. He spent many of those years on a Lake Shasta houseboat, and his misadventures there are briefly chronicled in the opening chapter of his 1999 autobiography - years of hard drugs and wild women that he recounts with a let's-get-this-out-of-the-way brevity.

During that blurry time, he did manage to meet Theresa, his fifth wife, with whom he would eventually have a daughter, Jenessa, and a son, Ben. The trio would rally by his bedside in 2008 when cancer required a portion of Haggard's right lung to be removed. Since then, singing has been difficult for Haggard, if not painful.

"There's a big void there," he says, poking himself in the chest. "You gotta reach for it to breathe all the way through it, and there's nothing there. It's really hard to explain."

He coughs.

Theresa remembers the operation and shudders.

"When he first got out of surgery and I saw him in intensive care, it was terrible," she says. "He looked at me and said, 'I should have died.' Then he yodeled! I thought, 'Okay, he yodeled!' "

Within two months, Haggard forced himself back on stage.

"I wanted to know whether or not I could [sing]," he says. "It takes about two years, they think, for this to heal, and we're right about on that [now]. . . . I haven't bounced all the way back yet."

His family watches him closely, including his 17-year-old son, Ben, who plays guitar in his band.

"I get some concerns sometimes," Ben says. "But when he gets out here [on tour], after the first few days . . . he's fine. It just keeps him going."

So he keeps going, even if it means neglecting the family that has brought him as close he's as he's ever been to peace. This month, Ben turns 18. Jenessa turns 21. Haggard will miss both birthdays as he travels to accept awards in Washington and Sacramento.

"Never once really gave a lot of great thought to raising children," Haggard says. "I had a family of four that came and slipped away. Before I realized I was even in the middle of it, it was gone. So when I had a second chance, well, I vowed to not make the same mistakes.

"But damned if I didn't make the same mistakes again. I went off down the road, chasing something, and let these children get away. And now they're grown. And I'm still going to the award shows and their birthdays are gonna be second. Somehow it's . . . wrong."

Eight hours later, Haggard is flanked by his son and his wife on the casino auditorium stage, apologizing to his mother for the 10,000th time: "I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole/No one could steer me right, but Mama tried, Mama tried/Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading, I denied/That leaves only me to blame, 'cause Mama tried."

The refrain is sodden with remorse, but Haggard makes it sound delicate, singing those ascending notes with a clarity that belies the pain that surely burns in his lungs. He serves up a twinkling riff on his Fender Telecaster, one of the heaviest electric guitars you can buy, swinging the instrument around like a six-stringed metaphor. In Haggard's hands, the heavy stuff feels light.

He's not too chatty with the crowd, but after a few songs he finally greets them with a yodel that takes all of his breath. For an instant, he seems happy. And you can bet it hurts like hell.

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