I'd just hit the "call" button on my cell phone. The number was Merle Haggardís office line. I'd prepared questions for almost a week, but as the phone began to ring, I suddenly realized I had no icebreaker—an opening question that would prove to this country-music god that he was safe in my hands.
"Hello," says a voice on the other line.
"Is this, uh, Mr. Haggard?"
"Why, yes it is."
Holy shit! I think. What do I ask?! This is Merle. Fucking. Haggard!
Haggard, 75, has 50-plus years experience playing country music. He's got more than 38 No. 1 hits, and so many albums that his discography needed its own Wikipedia page. He basically invented the "Bakersfield sound" of country music—rougher and more rocking than the slick stuff coming out of Nashville in the 1950s—and he once said he escaped from 17 jails and institutions in his life before he ever even got into music.
I look over from my desk and spot my copy of Haggard's 1981 album, Big City. On the cover, he's sitting on a bed, Telecaster in hand, wearing a big pair of yellow cowboy boots. I once read a story in which Haggard confessed that he'd been wearing only cowboy boots since the early '50s, when, as a teenager, he and a friend hitchhiked to Texas. He claimed he bought his first pair of boots and lost his virginity in an Amarillo brothel on the same day. The boots changed his life.
"Sir, I thought we could talk a little about boots," I say over the phone. "What are the best boots, in your opinion, and why do you love them so much?"
He says he's been through a lot of brands over the years, and, these days, he gets his custom made by a fella in El Paso who once did John Wayne's boots.
This proves to be a great ice-breaker. Soon enough, we're talking about a range of topics. It's a lot like talking with your grandfather. You mostly just shut up and listen, 'cause who knows what kind of knowledge he's about to drop on you.
Here's Haggard on spirituality: "The good Lord's been good to me. I'm not sure why, but Iíll take it."
And on politics: "Well, I keep waiting for them to actually do something. It really doesn't change much, but I still believe that this is the greatest country on Earth and I've always thought that."
On love: "When it comes to the songs, it's a subject that never gets old. I live with two women right now, and they supply me with endless inspiration, both good and bad." (The two women are his wife and daughter.)
On current country music: "I don't listen to a lot of it. It all kind of sounds the same to me, and they don't seem to be interested in doing anything new. I keep waiting for them to come up with a new melody."
On death: "I think about why I've made it this far every day. There were certainly good guys out there over the years, guys that were better than me that I thought would make it, but they didn't."
No matter the era or the state of the world, there'll always be someone who relates to Haggard's mix of egalitarian anger and everyman pride. He's garnered a reputation as a spokesperson for the "silent majority," and nicknames like "The Poet of the Common Man." Whether on his 1969 hit "Okie from Muskogee" or his 2005 anti-Iraq War lament "America First," he's never been afraid to speak his mind.
On Haggard's recent work, the instrumentation sounds roughly the same, the lyrics are just as surly and Haggard's voice remains mostly intact. But like Johnny Cash before him, Haggard now has both the privilege and burden of singing from hindsight. Similarly to Cash's work with Rick Rubin toward the end of his career, Haggard's current material is a lovely mix of pleasing memories and regretful lamentation.
Listening to a new Haggard song is like listening to a man coming to grips not only with his past, but also with the realization that there may not be much future left. On his 2010 song "I've Seen it Go Away," he sings: "I've seen it in all its pride and all its glory / I've seen it through the bars on a dark and stormy day / I've seen it from on high through the tears I've had to cry / The sad part is I've seen it go away."
With our interview coming to a close, I ask Haggard my final question.
"Sir, you've talked a lot about not looking back and speaking your mind, but a lot of your songs are full of remorse. At the end of the day, do you have any regrets?"
"I don't spend a lot of time looking at the past," he says. "All you can do is apologize and get out of bed in the morning and try to do better."
"And hopefully not make the same mistakes twice?" I ask.
Merle Haggard plays at Belly Up Tavern on Wednesday, April 10. The show is sold out. merlehaggard.com
Correction: We originally reported Mr. Haggard's boots were made in Las Vegas; they're made in El Paso.