by Justin Tucker
When I moved back home after graduating college, I inherited my father’s tan 1999 Ford Taurus with a cassette player. I also inherited a cache of his old cassette tapes which consisted of mostly country music peppered with a Rumors here or a Thriller there. One particular cassette that I found favor in was a greatest hits compilation by country legend Merle Haggard, and I had a killer time blasting songs such as “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie from Muskogee” in that car. I know Pops would be proud. The car ended up going kaput — it didn’t last 10 years like it should — but my love for the Hag still remains.
In anticipation of seeing the country icon perform at this year’s Riot Fest, I was able to pick his brain via telephone about his latest album with Willie Nelson, the upcoming presidential election, and the current state of music.
UR Chicago: You’re playing Riot Fest, which is coming up here in Chicago. As an elder statesman of country music, how does it feel to be sharing the stage with some of the elder statesmen of punk rock and heavy metal?
Merle Haggard: Oh, it’s fine with me. It’s a variety show, you know?
UR: Do you dig any of those styles of music?
MH: Well, I’ll find out. I’m not sure who I’m working with.
UR: Django and Jimmie is the latest of your many collaborations with Willie Nelson. What makes this album different from your previous collaborations with him?
MH: It’s different songs, different time period. [It’s about] Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. It’s a different concept.
We did everything different that we could. We tried to do different songs. An updated presentation. We did everything together in the studio. We didn’t mail it in.
UR: One song on the album I particularly enjoy is “It’s All Going to Pot.” In the video, you and Willie can be seen enjoying some refreshments in the studio. Are the folks in Muskogee starting to come around to the marijuana, or do they still prefer the white lightning?
MH: [He chuckles.] That’s a loaded question! I have no idea, but I’m sure you’re right. [He laughs.]
UR: You were writing those songs in the 60s and now you have a song like this 50 years later. Was your attitude always the same in regards to marijuana, or did you change your mind?
MH: Like most people, I have evolved. I’m not running for President, so I don’t have to lie about it. I had a different opinion at one time. I was one of the brainwashed.
UR: How so?
MH: Well, I think America has done a job brainwashing people about marijuana. Keeping it illegal [not just] for human consumption but [also] for industrial purposes.
UR: Is there anything else that you think America has been brainwashed about?
MH: Are you kidding? Hell, if I was to tell you everything, you’d hang up on me! You’d think I was a kook! There’s a lot of things we’re brainwashed about in this country, but that’s part of it. Still the greatest country in the world.
UR: Last time Hillary Clinton ran for the White House, you wrote a song that seemed to support her campaign. Are you still a Hillary fan, or are there other candidates you find impressive?
MH: I don’t think Hillary’s gonna be president. I thought she might have had a chance. It's just the Donald Trump factor, and I don’t think he’s gonna go away. He’s the other side of the coin when it comes to politics. I think people are ready for that. I am.
UR: So, will you count yourself among the Trump supporters?
MH: Yeah, if he don’t stick his foot further down his mouth, you know? I think he’ll probably make it. He’s got the fortitude, and he has an understanding of what he wants to do. His ideas are probably totally outlandish. I don’t think he can build a wall. Maybe [he can] build a military dispatch or somethin’ down there [or somewhere] to put the troops. But building a wall is [he chuckles] — that ain’t gonna work! And if it did, it wouldn’t be built in our lifetime. It would take forever. I don’t think that’s a reality.
UR: You did a song a few years back called “America First.” Infrastructure would definitely be a better investment than building a wall that would keep people out that want to work.
MH: There’s many things to do. We have the biggest prison count in the world. We’ve got more people inside walls than anybody else. We can use those people. Those people can work. Jailhouses are full of people who don’t do nothin’, and they can work. Our roads can be clean... We’ve got enough prisoners to take care of things like that. All you have to do is get ‘em to sign a paper. That’s it.
UR: Generally, the type of articles I write are related to movies and filmmakers and whatnot. I did a little research, and I watched a movie called Hillbillys in a Haunted House.
MH: [He laughs.]
UR: How instrumental was this film to your success?
MH: I don’t think it had much to do with it.
UR: I can tell you it’s not a very good movie and you, sir, are the highlight of it.
MH: I never watched it. It was a low-budget thing that I got yanked into for some reason. I don’t even remember why.
UR: I’ve read in other articles where you’ve said that today’s country music lacks substance. Was there a particular trend or event that happened within country that caused the genre to go in this vacuous direction?
MH: I don’t know. We used to be known as a cult of music that told a story along with a melody. I don’t find much of that... It’s been several years. I’m not blaming it on the people right now, but it’s been a long time since we had a melody in connection to words. And that’s supposed to be a song. You can use the same melody just so many times, and it starts to hammer on me. I don’t know about the public, but I’d love to hear a song. [He chuckles.] They’re getting these young kids with this energy and these great voices and everything. How come we can’t hear a song?
UR: It seems like it’s just rock music with people in leather pants and leather cowboy hats these days.
MH: It’s not just what we call country music. It’s across the board. Music in general. [There] has not been a pop song or any other song that has words and music together that went worldwide as a popular song. There hasn’t been one in years!
UR: I’m also at that age where I think all new music is lousy. I don’t know if I’m just getting old or if the quality of music has gone down in recent years.
MH: The mechanisms are wonderful... We may have passed the pinnacle in electronics where I think the [33 ⅓] speed round acetate was probably the best sound we could ever get. There was a magic in that.
Music in general... The songwriters are not being heard or else the music’s not being recorded. We’ve got kids who wanna talk about screwing on the tailgate. I don’t find that enjoyable. Hell, you can watch that on the porn channel.
UR: Are there any younger artists that are overlooked within country music that you would recommend to folks who don’t normally listen?
MH: I think Sturgill Simpson is really doing good... but of course, he’s being accused of doing traditional music. I don’t know of anybody that’s doing anything that would get airplay that I would recommend.
UR: Do you think country music radio is responsible for this shift?
MH: Did you say shift or shit? [He laughs.]
UR: Shift. Shift in quality.
MH: [He laughs.] I’m sure it is. When something good happens, they take all the credit. So, I’m sure they’re responsible for the other side of the coin too.