(Soundbite of song "Runaway Mama")

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The first notes of the latest CD from country legend Merle Haggard let you know he's taken a turn to bluegrass.

(Soundbite of song "Runaway Mama")

Mr. MERLE HAGGARD (Singer): (Singing) She's my runaway mama, always chasing other men. She's my runaway mama.

BLOCK: Merle Haggard, at age 70 now, with an absurd number of hits behind him - 38 number one songs. Haggard was raised outside Bakersfield, California, grew up along the train tracks in a 40-foot boxcar that his father turned into a home. When he was 11, Merle Haggard hopped his first freight train, rode a hundred miles to Fresno. He was in and out of juvenile detention, then jail and he did indeed turn 21 in prison, just like his song "Mama Tried" says. He served nearly three years at San Quentin.

All his life, Merle Haggard has written about people on the margins: a prisoner on death row, a factory worker laid off at Christmas time, a family dreaming of an easier life, in this number one song from 1969, "Hungry Eyes."

(Soundbite of song "Hungry Eyes")

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) A canvas-covered cabin in a crowded labor camp stand out in this memory I revived.

BLOCK: Haggard does a new version of that song on his CD "The Bluegrass Sessions."

(Soundbite of song "Hungry Eyes")

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) My daddy raised a family there, with two hardworking hands. And tried to feed my mama's hungry eyes.

BLOCK: Mr. Haggard, I'm hearing two songs that are very much the same over the last, almost 40 years. What do you hear?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, I sounded like a kid on the first one and was very excited and the other one, I sounded like an old man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HAGGARD: To me, now, maybe you guys don't hear the difference and if not, I'm tickled to death.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, there's some - there's some weight of the years in your voice for sure, but in a good way.

Mr. HAGGARD: Thank you.

BLOCK: What's the newest song on this CD? "Learning to Live with Myself?"

Mr. HAGGARD: That's probably my favorite song in there.

(Soundbite of song "Learning to Live with Myself")

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) I learned how to live with my darling. God took my darling away. Down through the years, you took all my peers, left me here in the play.

At my age, you know, I've learned how to live with my spouse and I've learned how to live with my beautiful children. I'd learned how to be friends with everybody and do everything, the only thing I really hadn't learned how to do is to learn to live with myself. I think that's probably the hardest thing we all have to do. We can lie to everybody else, we can't lie to ourselves.

BLOCK: Where did you write this song?

Mr. HAGGARD: I wrote it in the bathtub.

BLOCK: In the bathtub?

Mr. HAGGARD: Seemed like it was. There was water everywhere, I'm hoping it was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, how do you write in the bathtub?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, you try to remember. You set there and you work on it and you - and if it's not good enough to remember until you get to a pencil, it's usually not very good.

BLOCK: So you've just got to hang on to it.

Mr. HAGGARD: Yeah, you hang on to it. That's - I'm talking about the song, of course.

BLOCK: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: I was. I don't know about you.

(Soundbite of song "Learning to Live with Myself")

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) Till he gives me my call, the hardest of all will be learning to live with myself.

BLOCK: I've read that you have said about your songwriting that a lot of times, the songs are coming to you almost like from another place entirely. That's it's not really a conscious thing, it sounds like.

Mr. HAGGARD: Yeah, I write all the time. I say all the time. I'm always aware in trying to pick up on something - should something come through, and once in a while, it does and it usually in a most inopportune time like in the bathtub or on the way to the stage or, I remember one song I wrote in England. And there was four people with pencils and papers and we were writing on the way to the stage and they were playing the theme bringing me on and we got it all written and remembered the melody and everything.

BLOCK: Does it ever work for you the other way to actually, you know, sit down with a pad and paper and try to really work something through?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, Bob Wells was one of my idols and he used the phrase, he said, you know, I never did sweat out a song. I'm the same way. I don't - I've tried to do that and it sounds like that's what it is. It doesn't come out anything other than something you might've squeezed out. The real stuff comes unexpectedly.

(Soundbite of song "What Happened?")

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) It used to be Andy and Barney Fife, now it's Howard Stern and the brothel life. Too much crap can drive the world insane. Everybody's singing the jailhouse blues. Don't believe a word of the evening news. Truth that stood for years is down the drain. Trailer...

BLOCK: The song "What Happened?" it's really I guess a lament for how the country is changing. And that's something that seems like it's been on your mind for quite a while, through a number of songs over the years.

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, it should be on everybody's mind. We're, we're losing it. This country, another eight years like we've put up with, there won't be any country.

BLOCK: What do you mean?

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, financially, we're broke. Nobody has any confidence in the man in charge. You know, we're torturing people; we're not known to be that kind of people. People all over the world look up to us, and we're not setting a very good example.

BLOCK: Do you think you've gotten more political as you've gotten older?

Mr. HAGGARD: Yeah. When I was younger, I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut. But it's hard to do. And I think that some people have to speak out.

BLOCK: You said you used to keep your mouth shut, but I think a lot of people would remember songs like "Okie from Muskogee" and say, he wasn't keeping his mouth shut then, it might have been a slightly different mouth. But he was singing exactly what was on his mind back then too.

Mr. HAGGARD: Well, you're right. You're right. I haven't ever been able to hold my feelings back and the proof of it's in all the songs.

(Soundbite of song "What Happened?")

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) What happened, does anybody know? What happened, where did America go? Everything Wal-Mart all the time. No more mom and pop five and dimes. What happened, where did America go? Where did America go? Where did it go boys? Tell me.

BLOCK: Mr. Haggard, when you've been doing this as long as you have, trying to keep things new and fresh, what - how do you keep it exciting? How do you keep yourself going?

Mr. HAGGARD: It's not easy. I'm sitting here, faced with the decision on what I should do with the next five years of my life. And you can't do it a year at a time, it's time for me to buy new buses, it's time for me to do this and do that. And you either get on the wagon or get off. It's not exciting like it used to be. I'm not excited about it. But I, you know, there's a lot of other people that I owe all of my success to and you got to at least take them in consideration.

BLOCK: Can you imagine being retired?

Mr. HAGGARD: Yeah. I've tried to be satisfied with that and it really doesn't work. And it's been several weeks since I've struck a note on the guitar, you know, and I don't know if I can even find G-chord but they're expecting me to go do a tour in February. And I'll have to hire these musicians come and train me again.

BLOCK: I'm pretty confident you're going to be able to find that G-chord, Mr. Haggard.

Mr. HAGGARD: I hope so. That'd be awfully embarrassing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Well, Merle Haggard, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thanks very much.

Mr. HAGGARD: Oh, it's been fun talking to you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Merle Haggard, his latest CD is "The Bluegrass Sessions."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) Now you'd probably laugh if you could see the dream I had last night. You and I together on a maiden rocket flight. You were seated next to me with that happy frightened look. And you and I got young again on that rocket flight we took. Now wouldn't that be something?

BLOCK: You can hear Merle Haggard talk about one of his musical heroes, Jimmy Rogers, and yodel. And you'll hear more songs at npr.org/music.

Mr. HAGGARD: (Singing) Wouldn't that be something?

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