Master of the Universe

From presidents to pop stars, Merle Haggard has a song for everyone

The Capitol years ensured Haggard's place in the pantheon of country performers. His days of digging ditches and bucking hay bales became "Workin' Man Blues" and "The Roots of My Raising"; his marriages and divorces became "I Threw Away the Roses" and "Today I Started Loving You Again"; the sides he chose in the politically polarized 1960s became "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fighting Side of Me" (no one, after all, would expect an ex-con who had received a pardon from California governor Ronald Reagan to be a liberal). Many of Haggard's most poignant songs dealt with memories of prison and a life of crime, from "Branded Man" and "Mama Tried" to the wrenching "Sing Me Back Home," which later became the title of his autobiography. That story of a death-row convict walking the last mile as his friends sing gospel songs has long been taken as factual, although Haggard explains that it is at least partially idealized.

"There's a couple of different characters that molded their way into that song," Haggard says. "One was Carol Chessman, the so-called Red Light Bandit that they put to death while I was [at San Quentin]. And then there was a guy that escaped from San Quentin while I was there, who knew me and I could have went with him. While he was on the lam from the joint, he killed a guy. And when he came back, they executed him. We were his people at the joint before he escaped. And we would see him as he walked back and forth from his attorney meetings, across the main yard in the traditional condemned manner, which was a guard in the front and a guard in the back. [The song] wasn't a situation that actually occurred, but it could have and would have if it had been more Disney-like than reality."

As his reputation grew, Haggard found himself in a position to work with the country artists who had always been his heroes. The most poignant of these sessions, regrettably long unavailable, is a double LP entitled Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys -- For the Last Time Around. The Western Swing legend had suffered several strokes, and Haggard agreed to join the Playboys for what everyone knew would be Wills' last recording. The instrumental tracks were laid down, with Wills' trademark interjection, "ah-haa," scattered throughout. A few hours before Haggard arrived to sing the vocals, Wills suffered a massive, and final, stroke.

"I just went ahead and did what I thought he would want me to do." Haggard remembers. "I did a song called 'I Wonder If You Feel the Way I Do.' He was already incoherent, and I wondered what he'd like me to do, so I said I'll do this little ballad. A year or so after that record was made, I read somewhere or I heard an old interview; somebody asked him, 'What's your favorite song you've recorded?' and he said 'Wonder If You Feel the Way I Do.' I didn't know that when I recorded [it], and it kinda put goose bumps on me."

So what's next on the agenda for the 58-year-old Haggard? He's been to prison and he's been to the White House; he's sung his own songs, those of his heroes and the songs of kids who are as unknown as he once was. Haggard's been rich and he's been poor; he's been married and divorced, and there's an unabashed father's pride in his voice as he plugs son Marty Haggard's new CD, Amnesia -- even though he hasn't had a chance to hear it yet. His life is a story fit for the movies -- and that's where it's headed. Sing Me Back Home has been picked up by United Artists. "We're not talking television; we're talking about a major motion picture," says Haggard, with unrepentant Okie pride.

Rich, famous and in the movies. But what still matters most to Haggard is what made it all possible: the pain and the joy, the boozing and the jailing, the honesty and the poetry, the loving and the heartache -- the stuff of music and legends.

Merle Haggard performs at 7:30 and 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, March 5 and 6, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $25, $45 and $55. For info, call 869-8427.

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