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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The musician Merle Haggard has a new album in which he sings of enjoying simple things, like being at home or listening to mariachi music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEXICAN BANDS")

MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) (Spanish spoken) I'm just a gringo, I too like to work with my hands. And early mañana, I'll smoke what I wanna and listen to old Mexican bands.

INSKEEP: Yes, he's said I'll smoke what I wanna. Haggard's always been known as a rebel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MEXICAN BANDS")

HAGGARD: (Singing) And I love the wave and the trumpets, and the smell of a Mexican rose. I almost see her sombrero, the glitter and cut of her clothes...

INSKEEP: There may be an explanation for the relaxed tone of this album out this week, called "I Am What I Am." Merle Haggard has reason to be happy that he was even alive to record it.

HAGGARD: Well, you know, I had a bout with lung cancer in '08. November 3rd they took growth out of my chest and took my upper right lobe with it, but I've survived and I don't have anything left in my body that I know of. So things may take on a different outlook.

INSKEEP: You must have that moment as a singer when somebody comes and says lung cancer, entirely aside from wondering whether you'll survive, you got to wonder if you're going to sing.

HAGGARD: Well, that's the first thing that crossed my mind, evidently, when I came out of the ICU. They said I was yodeling.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND YODELING)

HAGGARD: I was yodeling. I said, here, look, watch this, you know, and I yodeled for them. That's what they said.

INSKEEP: You don't remember that yourself.

HAGGARD: I don't remember, no.

INSKEEP: Well, I want to play a song, a little bit of a song, from the new album here and listen to it. The song is called "Bad Actor." Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD ACTOR")

HAGGARD: (Singing) I've never been much at making believe. Don't have any tricks hidden up my sleeve. If life is a comedy, where's all the laughter, 'cause here on this stage I'm a bad actor...

INSKEEP: There's a beautiful little couplet in that song where you say I have a problem of knowing what's real; all my emotions I borrow and steal, suggesting that you aren't really sure how you fit into your own life.

HAGGARD: Well, I'm 72 years old and there again just survived something people usually don't survive. And when your wife says I still love you, you wonder if it's still real or not. You wonder if they're just feeling sorry for you.

INSKEEP: So he's happy to be here at all, but Merle Haggard still has some of the edge that made him famous. He used to sing of men in prison.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA TRIED")

HAGGARD: (Singing) I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole. No one could steer me right, but mama tried, mama tried, mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied. That leaves only me to blame 'cause mama tried...

INSKEEP: And Haggard's audience knew he'd been in prison himself as a young man. He was serving time at San Quentin when the inmates were treated to a New Year's concert by Johnny Cash.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOLSOM PRISON BLUES")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Well, I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die...

INSKEEP: Haggard was inspired. He's gone on to a long and successful career, though his new album still expresses frustration with the world around him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPES ARE HIGH")

HAGGARD: (Speaking) I watched it all completely fall apart and I seen our greatest leaders break the people's hearts...

INSKEEP: What do you think about the direction of the country right now?

HAGGARD: I'm confused. You know, this guy, I had high hopes for him, you know, I wrote a song called "Hopes Are High" for him.

INSKEEP: President Obama, you mean.

HAGGARD: Is that his name?

INSKEEP: That's his name, yes.

HAGGARD: Well, I'm just wondering what he intends to do. And, you know, this health care thing is debatable, and I just don't think we can afford it. I think we - we're asking too much of other people.

INSKEEP: What happened to that song, "Hopes are High"?

HAGGARD: It went down the drain in about two months. I still want him to succeed, but I don't know that he's going to be able to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING ME A SAD SONG")

HAGGARD: (Singing) Sing me a song, sad and...

INSKEEP: How, if at all, has your music changed over the last several years?

HAGGARD: Well, I haven't listened to a lot of it lately. I don't listen to my music, but I'm sure, since "Sing Me a Sad Song," when I was in my early 20s, I'm sure that I don't sound like the same guy.

INSKEEP: You're saying that you might not even remember how you did some of your great songs from 30 years ago.

HAGGARD: Some of them I don't want to remember.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Why? Is there a song you regret putting onto tape?

HAGGARD: Oh, there's a lot of them. I remember somebody wrote a song called "Back in Love by Monday," and I absolutely hate that song. I can't stand to hear it. It makes me want to regurgitate.

INSKEEP: But you recorded this song, "Back in Love by Monday"?

HAGGARD: Yeah, I did. I'm not sure why. I must have been on dope or something.

INSKEEP: When he sings I'll smoke what I wanna, Merle Haggard is fairly open about the fact that he means it, even at the age of 72. Yet his new music also suggests a man who is settling down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN AT THE END OF THE ROAD")

HAGGARD: (Singing) I'm looking for a place to hang my hat, and a place to lay me down my heavy logs...

INSKEEP: He's stayed in the same home for 24 years, though he remember earlier days when he was a young man running from the law and hopping on freight trains.

HAGGARD: I rode a freight from Oregon back to Bakersfield - that's over a bunch of a mountains - and it was in the wintertime and it was snow and it was ice. And two other hobos and me climbed down in the ice compartment of an old refrigerator car looking at each other with nothing to say.

INSKEEP: The ice compartment was warmer than being outside, I guess?

HAGGARD: Oh, you bet.

INSKEEP: What did you learn from that?

HAGGARD: Take enough money to ride a bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: So much for the romance of the rails.

HAGGARD: Yeah, it's really not all that great, I can tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: So you're happy with how things have worked out now. You're not still itching to ride a freight train back up to Oregon or something?

HAGGARD: No, I itch once in a while. I see one go by, but you know, they got readouts on the engine to tell you whether somebody jumps on the train and they know it. So you might as well go up and ask the engineer to let you ride in the engine. That's what I would do if I was hopping freights nowadays.

INSKEEP: It seems like you've actually given some study to this possibility in recent years.

HAGGARD: I've thought about it many, many times. I've thought about, you know, let's go out there and get on the old freight and disappear into the wall or something, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OIL TANKER TRAIN")

HAGGARD: (Singing) From my checkered past, I can always bring back the memories we felt in that home by the track...

INSKEEP: Listen to all of Merle Haggard's "I Am What I Am" at NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OIL TANKER TRAIN")

HAGGARD: (Singing) And all these years later it's still stuck in my brain...

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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