Country music legend Merle Haggard died today at the age of 79 at his home in Palo Cedro, CA from complications from pneumonia. In recent years, he battled lung cancer. His career spanned six decades and his status as a songwriter and singer ranks him in the pantheon of country music superstars like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash.
I interviewed Merle at his home in Palo Cedro in 1997 for HEMP TIMES, a sister publication to HIGH TIMES. The magazine covered the emerging hemp industry and hyped the hemp phenomenon with celebrities who graciously agreed to appear on the cover to promote this maligned agricultural crop. Dennis Hopper, Woody Harrelson, Roger Daltrey, and Merle were among a host of eco-conscious celebs who believed in hemp and wore hemp clothes on the cover of HEMP TIMES.
Merle Haggard poses for the cover of HEMP TIMES (1997) Photo by Dan Skye
Merle grabbed his guitar. Then, he and I strolled onto his vast property looking for an agreeable spot to shoot. When we found it, Merle struck a number of poses – cheerful, then wistful, like he could hear that lonesome whistle blow. But the best part of the photo shoot was that every time I snapped a shot, he’d play a blaring chord, punctuating each shot I took, which got pretty funny after awhile.
Later, we did the interview in his recording studio. He filled his pipe with some bud, lit it up and talked for an hour about the plight of America, how we’ve lost our way – allowing farmers to struggle when hemp offers economic relief, respecting the earth less and allowing corporations to run our nation. “Our government is like Montgomery Ward,” he says. “And they’re giving away the store.”
Merle, who spent time in San Quentin prison for petty theft, was a tough, grizzled presence. His songs were often tributes to the workingman or sad laments of a wasted life. But his voice was surprisingly sweet. Listen to “Silver Wings”; there’s no better song about leavin’ on a jet plane. And, of course, there’s the iconic “Okie From Muskogee” that featured the lyric “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” He always said the song was a joke – a parody of American values, supposedly reflected in the community of Muskogee, OK.
I asked him about the origins of country music and Merle was succinct and forceful. “It is something purely American. It comes out of the land, out of the people.”
In recent years, knowing his support for cannabis issues, I tried to get Merle to sit down for the HIGH TIMES feature interview several time. But he declined. He continued to tour with his superior band The Strangers, even earlier this year.
Light one up for Merle tonight.