Merle Haggard hits the road with Kris Kristofferson.
His terrier was yapping at his feet but Merle Haggard seemed to have all the patience, calm and focus of a Zen master. He was explaining why, at age 73, he keeps hitting the road, plying what could be the greatest repertoire of country songs ever written by one singer.
"It's like if I was a tennis player, if you don't play every now and then, you get to the point where you can't do it," he said by phone from his home in Northern California. "There is no in-between. If you walk out onstage and demand that kind of money, you'd better be in shape."
Three years after cancer surgery that extricated part of a lung, Haggard has figured out a less stressful way to tour -- enlisting fellow country great Kris Kristofferson, 74, as co-headliner. "It's much easier on both of us, not having to cover the entire base," Haggard said Tuesday. "We do a different show every night. It's the fastest two hours I've ever experienced. It's really fun."
He croons a few songs, then Kristofferson does a few, and so on. "I'm able to sing three songs and then I get to lay back and do what I love to do -- that's play guitar," said Haggard, who started as a sideman.
He's not the only guitarist onstage. His son, Ben, plays lead. "He's quite a show in himself," Haggard said. "He's 18 and he's been onstage with me for three years. And he looks like Robert Redford. We've got this new energy onstage with us, knocking me and Kris both out."
Haggard got hooked on Kristofferson by listening to Willie Nelson's 1979 album "Willie Sings Kris Kristofferson."
"I wound up with that tape on my houseboat and before I'd go out on tour, I'd put that album on for about three days and play guitar with it," Haggard recalled. "So I fell in love with most all the songs he does onstage. 'For the Good Times,' 'Lovin' You Is Easier,' 'Help Me Make It Through the Night.' They're all great, great guitar songs."
The same could be said of Haggard, who has chalked up 38 No. 1 country tunes. Take it from no less an authority than Bob Dylan: "Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets," he told Rolling Stone in 2009. "Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever."
Haggard, who has made more than 75 studio albums, including 2010's splendid "I Am What I Am," figures he might record a live CD with Kristofferson. He has several new songs in the can that he hopes will be released in the fall, making it nine albums for him in this young century. He suspended work on a rock 'n' roll record while he waits for Keith Richards' guitar contributions. Last year, he talked about forming a super trio with Willie and Kris -- The Musketeers -- but he's too busy with other projects, including producing Marty Stuart's next album and recording younger musicians such as the Mathis Brothers and his son, Ben.
Honors with Oprah, Babs
Haggard has received some pretty lofty honors of late. In December, he was recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors along with Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, choreographer Bill T. Jones and Broadway composer Jerry Herman.
"That's really against the grain for me, because I had to dress up in a suit and sit around for three days in Washington. But when things finally occurred, they were really something," Haggard said. "Paul McCartney was very complimentary to me. Oprah Winfrey reached over to me one time and whispered to me [he imitates her voice] 'We've come farther than the rest.'"
A few days later, Haggard was inducted into the California Hall of Fame along with Barbra Streisand, tennis star Serena Williams, director James Cameron and former Secretary of State George Shultz. Not bad for an ex-con who spent three years in San Quentin Prison for attempting to rob a bar.
Haggard became known as "the poet of the common man," thanks to such hits as "Workin' Man Blues" and "If We Make It Through December." His most famous song is the oft-misunderstood "Okie From Muskogee," a 1969 pronouncement of patriotism and denouncement of war protesters.
"It's just a song. It doesn't necessarily say anything about me," Haggard said. "A man could kill himself trying to live up to his material. I believe in America and I believe in the right to disagree. We probably do 'Muskogee' with a different attitude and different message than when we first wrote it. Kris wrote a surprise verse for it, and it's funnier than hell.
"I was as dumb as a rock [when he wrote it]. I didn't know much about what I was talking about. But I knew more than the hippies knew. We've come to terms with each other. I've got a lot of hippies in my audience. And I'm pretty much a hippie myself. A short-haired hippie."
And a well-known pot smoker. But he said he stopped when medicinal marijuana became legal in California. "There's no way I'm going to smoke somethin' that's legal, so I quit," he said. "But I think it's like onions: You ought to be able to grow it if you want it."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719