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A Merle Haggard Tribute: An American Hemp Patriot

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This feature originally ran in the Spring 1997 issue of HEMP TIMES, a former sister publication to HIGH TIMES. Photos by Dan Skye

“I want America to prosper and I want to do it in the cleanest way we can do it. That’s the reason my picture is on the cover — because I really am an American. Some people just claim to be American. I really am. I really l love this country.” — Merle Haggard

After days of torrential rain and fearsome flooding stretching from San Francisco to Seattle, the sun has finally broken through in Northern California. The monsoon-like weather that rang in the new year has saturated the land and delivered a blanket of snow to the higher elevations. Lassen Peak to the east, a 10,000-foot volcano last active in 1914, has been thoroughly whitewashed, and Mont Shasta, 80 miles north, is bathed in dazzling sunlight though a halo of swirling gray clouds is stoking new blizzards at its highest reaches.

On Merle Haggard’s land near Redding, you can see both peaks clearly. His home was in no real danger when the record rain swept the Northwest. It sits on high ground amid acres of pasture and forest with commanding views of the fertile Sacramento Valley to the south.

Haggard and Biff Adams, his drummer and manager, are discussing buses when I arrive. Actually, it’s bus repairs. The estimate that Biff has quoted for fixing one of Haggard’s two touring buses has climbed to $7,000.

“Always happens when we’re not working,” Merle comments.

“I don’t know which is worse,” Biff replies. “If we’re travelin’, it might have cost a $3,000 tow job on top of it.”

Merle nods:  “That’s the point.”

The holiday break he books for himself annually still requires attention to the less glamorous demands of country stardom — like keeping your wheels in shape. Merle Haggard is not home much. He and his band, The Strangers, work up to 100 nights per year and spend another 100 in transit. Though promotion in country music is as slick as the rock industry and pumps out music videos with the same regularity, life on the road is still part of the bargain for the players of America’s music.

Whether it’s a Midwest tri-county fair, a rickety auditorium in a dusty Southern province or a glitzy Las Vegas stage, the country stars go to the people. The genuine stars are part of the audience for whom they perform. If the people listen, they stay on the road.  If you’re Merle Haggard, you’ve been on the road over 30 years.

“Haggard has shown great sensitivity and skill in his treatment of a wide variety of topics ranging from prisons and ex-convicts to disappointed lovers and truck drivers,” writes Bill Malone in Country Music U.S.A. He calls songwriters like Haggard the successors of the great Southern novelists. “They have retained a sense of place that is refreshing in an age of ceaseless change and dislocation.”

Merle Haggard has always been hailed as a symbol of the workingman — downtrodden yet dignified, authentic and unwilling to blend —a poet of the common man, the guy you might find down at the bar who speaks in simple and direct language. He is, quite simply, a legend — unposed and unpackaged — so unlike the slick soap-opera cowboys who diddle the country music market today.

“Staggering,” Peter Guralnick says of Haggard’s body of work in Lost Highway, the much-praised profile of country-western music.  “There is no one in contemporary popular music who has created a more impressive legacy, or one that spans a wider variety of styles.” 

I’ve read the music biographies and studied the accompanying photos hard. The younger Merle Haggard is handsome and sad-eyed. In more recent photos, a distant, weathered man is revealed, hard-edged and grizzled, who often ignores the camera altogether. Writers who have interviewed him in the past all note his “complexity.” One comment in particular, attributed to a band member, captured my attention: “He don’t want to talk, he wants his music to make the comments.”

But Haggard is gracious when we meet, and mindful of the impact his endorsement of hemp carries. Though his wife, Theresa, is down with a bad flu and he and Biff are nailing down specifics for upcoming tour dates, Haggard patiently poses for photographs with guitar in hand and punctuates each press of the shutter-button with an extravagant chord, which actually gets to be pretty funny after awhile. Sometimes he even moves into a classic country stance, turning profile and lifting his head wistfully as if he’s just heard that lonesome whistle blowing out there somewhere.

“I want people to see me and say ‘Well look here. Merle Haggard’s not talking about marijuana, he’s talking about hemp.’  People shouldn’t be afraid of something as mild-mannered as hemp. People might be ignorant because they chose to be ignorant on the subject. A lot of people are ignorant about things because they don’t find the answer of any use. Maybe my picture will cause those kinds of people to look in here and see that there’s some validity to what I’m thinkin’ and begin to feel the same way I do.

“I’m for the Constitution,” he says. “I just wonder how politicians got to the place that they can’t afford to listen to the people anymore. The part I don’t understand is, what happened to the voice of the folks? We’re givin’ away all of our rights, like signin’ a contract at Montgomery Ward. If we’re not careful, we’ll give away everything we fought for in one signature. Things of this nature is what I’ve got my picture on this magazine for.”

Haggard has never been ashamed of his patriotism. He has said, “I’ve got to go with the flag, until they hang up one better.”

“Haggard has used each album as a vehicle for personal expression” writes Guralnick. “He has written blues and folk songs, social commentary and classic love songs, protest and anti-protest, gospel and ballads, prison and train songs, drinking songs and updates of Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels. He has written just about every kind of song there is.” 

I have been listening to Merle Haggard tapes for days. Now and then as he speaks, you can hear a tinge of his sweet, evocative singing voice. But for the most part, his speech is a flat Oklahoma drawl and seems incompatible with the tremulous tone that has produced tear-jerking ballads and tough-edged blues. 

It is a direct voice not given to wavering sentiments. His father farmed in Oklahoma before moving the family in 1935 to Bakersfield, CA, where they lived in a converted boxcar. Merle was born in 1937. When he was nine, his father died of a brain tumor, and by his teens Merle was running wild, in and out of reformatories, ultimately ending up in San Quentin for nearly three years on a botched robbery attempt. 

Upon his release in 1960, he returned to Bakersfield and dug ditches, but also concentrated on his natural gifts for music. He worked as a lead guitarist with a local country band, and within two years was playing backup for singer Wynn Steward in Las Vegas. By 1965 Haggard’s own songs were breaking into the country Top Ten.

He has released over 60 albums and 600-odd songs, 38 of which have reached Number One on the country charts. Among his biggest hits are “Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Hungry Eyes” and, of course, “Okie From Muskogee,” which became an unintentional, oddball anthem for right-wing America, bringing Haggard undreamed-of-wealth and invitations to the Nixon White House.

He is s superb instrumentalist, one of country’s best lead guitarists and fiddlers. He has also assembled The Strangers, a multifaceted band as skilled in improvisation as they are at playing his original songs.

Haggard is “a rare phenomenon in the country-music world where, more often than not, singers don’t write well, writers don’t sing well and singer-writers don’t play well,” wrote Bryan Di Salvatore in “Ornery,” a profile published in The New Yorker in 1990. “The average country singer is a stylist, whose strength is in interpreting the works of a stable of salaried songwriters, and who's guitar (strummed rather than picked) is little more than a prop, a pace to put one’s hands while singing.”

Haggard’s schooling stopped at the eighth grade, but he possesses native intelligence equal to his songwriting genius.  Few country stars have shown as much skill communicating the despair and disappointments of average people, or produced the volume of simple, compassionate songs that Merle Haggard has.  Listen to “Silver Wings.” There is no superior lament ever recorded about someone leaving on a jet plane.

“What I play is traditional country music,” he explains. “It is a blend of all the races that have come to America. It’s partly black, it’s partly white, its partly Chicano. The music comes out of that.  It comes from the soil. It’s identifiable.”

He believes the biggest thing wrong with the music today, country or pop, is that it’s short of good songs. 

“When I grew up in this business,” he says, “the idea was to be able to write eight lines and make it describe something that you couldn’t do with a camera. That was the idea of The Song. I think they do it the other way around now. They make those videos about these guys movin’ around real quick and there’s a girl in there and some sort of turmoil goin’ on. You could put 100 percent different lyrics behind it. The song becomes secondary.I think that’s what we’re hearin’ on the radio — secondary video music.” 

He has never been fond of Nashville. (“There are simply too many people telling you what you should do,” he has said.) Instead, his recording studio of choice is situated on his property inside a roomy, hacienda-like structure that once served as his home but now functions as a meeting center for band members and business concerns.

Haggard, says the holidays weren’t much this year. His oldest brother, Lowell, passed away in December, and business never takes a holiday. Merle and Biff discuss bookings on nearly a daily basis, unless Merle has escaped to his houseboat, or, in this year’s case, abruptly fled back to the road on a 2,500-mile desert journey to find a new place to live. Once he had checked into the recent environmental history of the desert Southwest — the nuclear testing, the dumping of toxic waste, the mining that has polluted land and water — Haggard abandoned his trek.

“I would have liked to see this country before we ruined it,” he says grimly. “I wish there was some way we could take a photo of the way it was 200 years ago.”

He pauses and says firmly, “i want this country to prosper. I want to do it the cleanest way we can do it.”

In the same way that a population bends a river to its will, so too can political will be exercised. But it will take more than pieties.  For Haggard, like many, last year’s election only demonstrated the government’s lack of commitment to real change and its inability to engender trust.”

“These politicians we got representing us — there is a great lack of explaining one’s character. I don’t think we ask the right questions. Seems to me, with all the important things that we’d like to know about the man, there would have been another question that made it to the top of the list other than ‘Have you ever smoked marijuana?’”

When I ask whether he’s cynical, he raises his voice sharply.  “No! As crazy as things are!” 

But he relaxes and adds: “Even in this political lull in history that we’re in, some of the wind could blow in the right direction if there’s enough strength behind it. There’s a lot of industry that could benefit from hemp, and the American farmer could produce it. The tobacco industry’s going under here, but they’re shipping it overseas for cheaper labor and where there isn’t as much controversy over smoking. It’s enough to start a war!

“I’ve done the Farm Aid concerts with Willie [Nelson] — one of the first involved. I still would like to be identified as one who is proud to help the farmer. Maybe other people will read this article and see that they need to investigate hemp and find out first that it doesn’t have nicotine in it, there’s hardly any THC, and we’re talking about something that’s useful and can save the forests.  Hell, that shirt I had on when you took my picture, in case anybody wants to know, feels better than cotton. I’m going to do what I can.”

He stares off for a good ten seconds, then glances my way and says politely, “I think I’ve said enough.” 

He gets up and shakes hands. “It’s been a pleasure working with you. I’ve got to go look after my wife.” 

He then saunters off to his truck parked outside. At this point, it’s about five in the afternoon.  We’ve been sitting in his recording studio and I linger a little to look at the walls. Huge framed photos of legends like Bob Willis and Lefty Frizzle stare down. A copy of “Sing Me a Sad Song,” his first big hit, is also framed.   A handwritten playlist for some past recording session lies on a desk. 

Through the windows I can see the shadows creeping up Mount Lassen. I leave and drive slowly down the long country road back to the main highway. It is beautiful here, lush and green even in January. Though the weather has been harsh, the twilight disguises the local rain damage. 

I remember Merle was quoted In “Ornery” as saying: “I’ll accommodate any son of a bitch that gets to me.” 

I feel pretty good, for an S.O.B. I drive aimlessly and make a few mental notes.Naturally, Merle Haggard is still on the car’s tape deck to help me fill in any blanks. 

“In my music, it’s hard to miss how I think,” he told me.

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