The Grammy-winning country music singer-songwriter shares the inspiration for his lyrics and discusses his new album, “Working in Tennessee.”
Country music legend Merle Haggard
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Merle Haggard to this program. The country music legend is widely considered to be one of the most influential country artists in history and has notched 40 number one hits during his career.
His latest disc is called “Working in Tennessee.” Merle Haggard, sir, an honor to have you on this program.
Merle Haggard: Thank you, sir.
Tavis: You doing all right?
Haggard: I’m doing good, yeah.
Tavis: It’s good to have you here. It’s been a long road. Forty – that’s a lot of hits. That’s a lot of hits, man.
Haggard: Well, we’ve had –
Tavis: That’s just number ones.
Haggard: Number ones. (Laughter) We’ve had over a hundred in the charts over the years, and then it’s been an enjoyable life.
Tavis: Yeah. How did you decide, who convinced you to take your music seriously?
Haggard: I made that decision. It was either the guitar or the cotton patch, and it didn’t take a lot of intelligence to make that decision. (Laughter)
Tavis: To figure out it was going to be one or the – yeah, I get it, I get it. Tell me about the “Working in Tennessee” project. How would you describe this one?
Haggard: Well, it’s our latest efforts. It’s a song that has maybe a couple of different meanings to it. It’s partly current events. They had a flood down there in Tennessee and it’s kind of about that, and I just sent a guitar down there, and I looked up on TV one day and they were talking about a flood and doing the Hall of Fame and all that, and I imagined what I’d feel like if I saw my guitar floating by and wrote that song for the trailing thoughts of that songwriting endeavor. Does that make sense?
Tavis: It makes sense to me. Since you mentioned the guitar and I hear your point, how important – how would you describe the relationship you’ve had to this instrument all these years?
Haggard: It’s like a woman. It demands attention, and you’ve got to love it to do it. There’s nothing in the world can make you work that hard. It’s a tremendously hard instrument to play, especially when you get older. You fall apart and things you take for granted when you’re young you can’t do anymore.
Well, the guitar falls into that category. It’s hard to do, physically, but I love it enough to do it.
Tavis: I was going to say, yeah, you’re still managing, though. You haven’t falling off too much.
Haggard: Still doing it and getting paid.
Tavis: (Laughter) What did you think, because I saw this and I didn’t know what to expect. PBS does a lot of good work and I’m honored to be on it, of course, every night, but I thought the PBS special about you last year was pretty amazing. What’d you make of it?
Haggard: I thought it was good.
Haggard: Yeah, it certainly stirred up a lot of ticket sales for us. We travel all the time, Tavis, and each little thing stimulates. The new album will stimulate ticket sales.
Tavis: You still like doing the live thing, the life performance?
Haggard: Yeah, it’s necessary. It’s part of the gamut, and it’s also – that hour or so out on stage – we do about 75 minutes – nothing’s going to change. We’re in charge of that hour and 15 minutes or so and it’s enjoyable, and then we go back to real life when we get done.
Tavis: Why do you say – I think I get your point – but why do you say it’s necessary for you? Why is it necessary for Merle Haggard to be out there?
Haggard: Well, it’s necessary for record sales, it’s necessary for my career that people, I think, find me among the living, that I haven’t passed on. I’m not Waylon Jennings. (Laughter) I didn’t die a few years ago, I’m still alive, and we’re going to play in their town.
We play their town and they come see the show and if they like it they go out and buy Merle Haggard records. That’s pretty much the intention of touring.
Tavis: What inspires your lyrics, or does it come from a variety of different sources and places?
Haggard: I’m a writer. That’s what I do, that’s what I’ve been successful at in my life, so I’m very much conscious of the things going on around me and politics and current conditions of the world, and I’m a spiritual man, I hope, and I try to watch all levels of that and maybe grasp something different and put it into music.
The world’s an interesting place and there’s a lot of great songs to be written, and I hope that I’m one of the writers.
Tavis: To your point, Merle, that the world is an interesting place, I take that and I agree. It’s not just interesting, as you know, it’s complex, it’s getting more and more difficult for people to navigate. People are becoming much more insular and becoming more nativist.
I raise all that to ask whether or not the condition of the world is making it easier or more difficult to write good stuff.
Haggard: Well, I think communication, the Internet and all that, has made it – Joe Blow, for example, doesn’t need special equipment to make a record. He can go buy a cheap thing for $400 or $500 and make as good a record as people that do it professionally.
So there’s a lot more people competing and the communication is so great that at the push of a button you can hear a new artist or an old artist, which makes it better for me. Did I get off the question?
Tavis: No, I was – (laughing) I love your organic way. I was asking whether or not – you were on the question, so you weren’t off of it, you were starting to go a little deeper for me, which I appreciate.
I was asking whether or not the condition of the world, with all this going on the world, the complexity of the world, is making it easier or more difficult – easier in the sense that there’s a lot more stuff to write about, or more complex, more difficult as a songwriter.
Tavis: Because you’re trying to make sense of all of it.
Haggard: It’s easier and it’s more complex.
Tavis: It’s easier and more difficult. All right.
Haggard: It’s harder – the wife and I, we try to keep track of the royalty checks and separate them, are you a publisher, are you a writer, are you an artist? We get them from three different ways, and they tax us in different manners. It’s overwhelming, just the little operation that I do, trying to keep our income straight.
It’s a $10 check here and a $5,000 check there and you’ve got to look at every one of them. So it’s overwhelming, and today in the world we’ve never been in a situation where we’ve had this much intelligence under our belt. We’ll know more in the next three years than we’ve known since the beginning of time.
Tavis: There is a question that I’ve asked countless times on this show over the many years, and I only ask it of persons who I regard as great songwriters. I’ve asked it many times, but not of that many people, because everybody, I don’t think, is a great songwriter – my own assessment.
But you are certainly one of them, so for you, what makes a great song? What makes a great song for you?
Haggard: Well, “Amazing Grace” is a great song. Everybody knows “Amazing Grace,” and that’s what’s supposed to happen. Everybody knows “White Christmas.” “White Christmas,” I think, is the number one or close to it single of all time.
Tavis: I think you’re right about that. It goes up every year, doesn’t it?
Haggard: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: Try to count those royalty checks.
Haggard: It was written in 1940 at the Biltmore Hotel by Irving Berlin on a hot August day, I think. (Laughter) He was actually dreaming about a white Christmas, and the next Christmas, which was 1941, Bing Crosby recorded that, and they asked Bing, said, “What do you think about that?” He said, “Well, I think we got all that we could get out of that,” and it went on to be the biggest single of all time. It probably won’t change.
Tavis: So it’s got to resonate with people.
Haggard: Those are good examples. Songs are not poetry, there’s a difference. The rappers are doing poetry to rhythm, but there’s no melody. I write a lot of poetry, and what poetry is is a song without a melody, and it’s – there’s two different things there. A song is different from poetry.
Tavis: I totally agree; I’d only add one thing, that these days, rappers aren’t just guilty of that. Most songwriters these days don’t know how to write a good melody.
Tavis: That’s true across the board.
Tavis: All right, we agree on that. (Laughter) On the “amen,” I’ll stop. The new project from Merle Haggard, the latest project from Merle Haggard, is called “Working in Tennessee.” If you did not see the wonderful special done on him on PBS, of course he’s a Kennedy Center honoree now, but if you didn’t see the wonderful piece that PBS did on him, go online to PBS.org, find it.
You will not be disappointed. Great, great special about this wonderful artist, iconic artist, Merle Haggard. Sir, it’s an honor to have you on this program. Delighted to have met you.
Haggard: Nice to be here. Thank you for asking me.
Tavis: Glad to have you. Come back any time.
Haggard: We’ll come back.
Tavis: You’re welcome, I appreciate that.
Haggard: Thank you.
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