The country legend chats to Digital Journal about his upcoming series of shows and, among other things, the trials and tribulations of crossing the Canadian border.
What is there left to say about the great Merle Haggard? After an eventful 76 years on this planet, the life of this uncompromising storyteller is thankfully an ongoing saga, despite a rather serious cancer scare back in 2008.
These days, seemingly flying in the face of some well-publicised health issues, the hopefully immortal 'Poet of the Common Man' - currently preparing for a 13-date Canadian tour - also spends much of the year on the road, bringing hit-after-timeless-hit to his legions of fans.
"Well Canada is different," begins 'The Hag', talking to me from his home in northern California. "The people are different... I find a lot of things in Canada are better in lots of ways than the States right now. People still hitchhike in Canada - we don't do that down here anymore. They don't lock their doors in Canada - we've got to lock ours up real good. It's nice to see that still existing in the world."
"I'll tell you what..." he says, in reply to the question of whether the Canadian crowds are any different to those in the States, "my audiences everywhere have been tremendous, I can't put the United States down at all. The audiences are wonderful down here and they're the same way in Canada. God bless the audience that comes out to see me. They support me and they support the music and I wouldn't badmouth any of them."
In a long and enviable career that began way back in the early 1960s when the young musician joined Wynn Stewart's backing band - before releasing his debut single Sing A Sad Song (a Wynn Stewart composition) in 1964 - Merle Haggard has notched up more than 40 number ones on the country chart and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. How does the prolific tunesmith choose which of his many songs to play live and will he be altering the set list in any way for his Canadian fans?
"Well I don't specialise anything for Canada... I come with the best we've got. We've got a great band. My son Benny is working with me on lead guitar and he appeals to the younger people. I think he's doing a good job of drawing his share...
"We don't use a set list," he continues. "We go out on stage with a hundred songs or so in our minds and whatever the treatment calls for, that's the direction in which I move. I try to be able to read the audience and try to entertain them. Not just sing songs, but maybe say something that has to do with the moment - to bring them into a moment that they won't forget - and have them come to their feet at the end of the show because they enjoyed it so much. That's my intention, that's what I go on stage with - don't use a set list."
Which of your songs do you particularly enjoy playing live? I know you like to mix the old with the new...
"Well it's my intention to enjoy each one I do... and however well I'm able to pull it off will be the degree of enjoyment, but there's so many things that play a part in pulling off a song on stage. If you've got a situation where the bass is booming in the side of your face and that's all you hear, but you've got to act like you hear it real good, and you've got to sing it, sometimes it's total work.
"Then other times, when the sound is wonderful on stage and off stage, well that's a whole different condition. From night-to-night, travelling, doing one-nighters, it depends on the condition of the environment which you have to work in, and sometimes you're working in a building that's full of mould and mildew and I'm real sensitive to that - it cuts my wind off. I can't even get my breath and I'm out there singing, just trying to stay alive. People stand up at the end of the show and I'm amazed."
As previously mentioned, Merle and his talented musical entourage ("We've got one of the best bands around right now - nobody would be disappointed in the band"), that not only includes his 20-year-old son Ben but also his wife Theresa, spend much of the year on tour, playing gigs usually for two or three weeks at a time. When was the last time the reformed ex-convict, officially pardoned for his youthful misdemeanours by then-governor of California Ronald Reagan in 1972, took his seven-piece group (plus two backing singers, one of whom is daughter Dana) north-of-the-border?
"Well the last time I played outside America, it was in Canada. I think it was about five years ago, somewhere in that time period... We try to get up to Canada at least once every five years! If we didn't have all the problems at the border, we'd be up there more often. Since 9/11 over here, it's been a great hassle and they don't recognise my pardon. I got a full, unconditional pardon - maybe the only man alive that's got two pardons - and the border of Canada doesn't recognise my pardon. We're working on that..."
"We've got offers," says one of the 'Last of the Breed', discussing the possibility of touring in further-flung corners of the globe. "Bob Dylan let me know a couple of times, he emailed me and told me I was the most requested artist of all the places that he's been. He's been all over the world - he's been to Russia and he's been to China and places that the acts don't normally go, and he said I'm the most requested artist every night when he talks to people.
"So we have a big standing invitation to make a worldwide tour and it is something we've got on our plate. We're looking at it real seriously - some people have offered a plane and they've offered me all kinds of money. I don't know whether I need any money. At my age, money's not worth much, you know? My time with my family is worth more than all the money in the world, so I don't know whether I'll do that or not... The invitation is there."
Reflecting on past jaunts, the artist concedes that it must be 30 years or so since he last toured in Europe, though his memories of the last trip he made to Ireland are vivid. "It was such an unforgettable condition," he recalls. "We played in a terrible place in Belfast, Ireland and most people had payed an awful lot of money and it was disgusting to me to not be able to entertain them. We had so much echo in there and you couldn't tell what was playing and when it was... the noise would just move from one side of the stage to the other. That was the only way you could tell the difference between a steel guitar and a piano - it was just terrible.
"They had that war going on over there and they stopped the war for one day while we travelled across Ireland and played in Belfast, and then we played in Dublin. I think we were there 48 hours and there wasn't any sort of conflict whatsoever for 48 hours. As soon as we left, they went back to fighting!"
This interview took place before the untimely death of George Jones and I brought up the fact that Haggard's great friend was due to retire from touring (along with George Strait, whose Cowboy Rides Away tour is set to end in 2014) later this year. I wondered out loud whether Merle had given any thought to doing the same.
"Well neither one of those guys are what I'd call musicians," he explains. "They're singers, neither one of them are what you'd call writers... I am a writer and I'm a musician and in order to play your instruments, you have to be in shape and when you get out of shape... That's the reason they have baseball players go down and warm up for quite a while before they start working.
"Music's the same way. When I pick up an instrument, I want to be able to play it and if I lay off, kinda ease back in the easy chair here and quit doing what I should do, well I won't be able to do that any longer and the next big event in my life will be death. That's the way I've got it figured... I think I'm gonna live longer, and maybe enjoy life more, if I work hard. That's my theory."
Merle Haggard's Canadian tour kicks off in Kitchener, Ontario on May 4th.
For more information, visit his official website.