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Merle Haggard: like never before

By Dan MacIntosh, October 2003

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Roads and bridges can always be repaired and rebuilt, but special people can never be replaced. Haggard lost one of his dearest friends when Johnny Cash passed away recently.

"He had a great impact on my life," Haggard recalls. "He was a rebel. He went on his own path. He was his own man. He was a great American. He was the John Wayne of country music and maybe the John Wayne of music as a whole - not just country music."

"We worked a lot of shows," he continues. "I've spent a lot of miles traveling with him. I worked his television show when he had a network show. He encouraged me to be honest with the public and admit that I had been incarcerated, instead of having the tabloids come back on me and all that later. And up until that time, I'd kept it a secret. No one knew that I'd been in the joint. It's not anything that I want to brag about at this time. It's just something that happened in my life, and instead of growing up in Vietnam, I grew up in San Quentin. There's a bit of warrior involved in both."

Haggard has many fond memories of special times spent with Cash. "He and I were close friends. We actually spent time together and enjoyed each other's company. I got to spend time with him recently, about two years ago," he continues. "I helped him make a record, and we got to sit out in the woods and visit with each other. It was a really pleasant, wonderful memory. I remember asking him, I said, "Tell me, how did Roy Acuff hold that gig for 40 years while singing out of key?" He turned to me, and he said, "Evidently, you haven't heard, Haggard. Roy Acuff could whip anybody on the Opry."

And boy, the Opry could sure use Roy Acuff to whip it into shape now."He was totally in charge of Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry," Haggard elaborates. "And when Roy Acuff left, the thing began to fall apart."

The CD booklet notes for Haggard's cover of Woody Guthrie's "Reno Blues (Philadelphia Lawyer)," say, "Duet with Willie Nelson, my friend from Texas." And sadly, Haggard and Nelson are quickly becoming the last of a breed. "Willie appeared here in my area (near Lake Shasta) at the same time (as the album was recorded) and had a day off before his show, so this gave him a nice opportunity to come out and record with me," Haggard explains.

"And he came out and spent a whole day recording, and I think we did four songs that day, he and I together. And I think a guy would be a fool not to put a duet with of himself and Willie Nelson - with a chance to sell records - on his album."

Nelson is no stranger to singing duets, as the joke goes, but Haggard believes he helps bring out the best in Willie as a duet partner.

"I think he sings a lot better on my records than he does with a lot of people," Haggard boasts. "I don't know (why), but me and him are pretty close. We've both done a lot of things exactly the same way. He was from Texas, and I was from California, but neither one of us were from Tennessee. But we had to go to Tennessee, and we had to put up with all that rhetoric a while and go through that and graduate. And he and I both shared a theater in Branson, and we earned a purple heart for that. We shared a theater there for year before they ran us out of town. But when we record together, it's special. With the exception of The Highwaymen, I think 'Poncho And Lefty' (a Haggard/Nelson hit duet) is the best thing Willie's done with anybody."

Dylan once sang that those not busy being born are busy dying. Keeping busy, and continuing to push his creative birth process, if you will, must be one of the secrets to Merle Haggard's undeniable success. When Haggard's not making new music in his home studio, he's landscaping his property or spending time with his wife and two young children. In other words, he's ever in the active mode. "I gotta have something going on or I'd go nuts," he admits. "My mind won't shut down."

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