By John Lamb
MOORHEAD — Merle Haggard may be 78, but you don't want to get on the fightin' side of the legendary singer.
Just ask him about the current state of country music. He sings the praises of Sturgill Simpson, the 37-year-old singer-songwriter who sounds like vintage Waylon Jennings. Haggard thinks highly enough of Simpson to have him open Sunday's show at Bluestem Center for the Arts.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's the only one out there. The rest of them sound like a bunch of (crap) to me. He comes out and does a great show," Haggard says.
"The rest of them" is everything else in contemporary country music, the opinionated icon says.
"I can't tell what they're doing," says The Hag. "They're talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature. I don't find no substance. I don't find anything you can whistle and nobody even attempts to write a melody. It's more of that kids stuff. It's hot right now, but I'll tell you what, it's cooling off."
If anyone can credibly comment on authenticity in country music, it's Haggard. Born in a boxcar that was his parents' home, he's lived the life others can only try to sing about. His early run-ins with the law ended up with Haggard serving time in jail and inspiring the 1968 country classic "Mama Tried."
After seeing Johnny Cash perform in San Quentin prison, Haggard was more resolved to go straight and make a life in music after being paroled in early 1960. He started working regular jobs and playing around, getting a reputation as a front man. In 1964, he released his first top 10 hit, "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," and Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of his first album, "Strangers," hitting stores.
Since then, he's scored 38 No. 1 songs, been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and received the Kennedy Center Honors at the White House in 2010.
The thought of being considered a national treasure never occurred to him while he was in prison for robbery.
"Absolutely not. I never fathomed that. It was not even a dream," Haggard says. "In Bakersfield (Calif.), they sent me to San Quentin and 10 years later made me the man of the year. It's a phenomenal thing that happened to me in my life."
Haggard paid his debt to society and put his hometown on the musical map by helping popularize the Bakersfield sound; a simple, stripped-down reaction to the slick orchestrations coming from Nashville, Tenn., in the '50s and '60s. The Bakersfield sound was influenced by the influx of Okies fleeing the Dustbowl.
Merle Haggard, 78, says Johnny Cash urged him to open up about serving time in prison.
Haggard's parents were among those who arrived in that wave, and he paid tribute to their grit in his anthem "Okie from Muskogee," a jab at the counter-culture of 1969.
"The song I believe has more than one message, more than I realized when I wrote it," Haggard says. "I think the main message is 'I'm proud.' And people are proud to be anything."
No matter the meaning, the song instantly struck a chord with audiences.
"We'd written it the night before and played it at Fort Bragg (N.C.). We played it, and I didn't know what was going on," he says. "I thought it was an air raid or something. They started coming up on stage, and this guy took the mic and said, 'There will be no more songs sung until we hear that one again.' It was crazy and it's been crazy ever since. The song is 46 years old and its hotter now than it ever was."
On Sunday Haggard will get some help singing the tune from his contemporary, Kris Kristofferson, a special guest on the bill.
"He's got a real unique verse that he does," Haggard says with a laugh.
Haggard has collaborated with stars before, most notably with his friend Willie Nelson. The duo released "Django & Jimmie" earlier this year. The first single off the disc, "It's all Going to Pot," is a musical endorsement of marijuana. Haggard says it's "silly" that marijuana is still illegal in many states.
Still, the pair are best known for their 1983 cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," a song they knew would be a hit, though he stumbled the first time they tried it.
"It was kind of hard to understand. There was a lot of words and you couldn't write them down on one page. (Willie) wrote them down on a torn-open grocery sack," Haggard recalls. "We went in and did that song at 4 in the morning. I didn't know that song had so many words. I said, 'Willie, I'll have to do my part tomorrow.' I went to bed and got up the next morning and came in to do my part and they said, 'It's already on it's way to New York.' And that's the way it was. He never changed his part and I never changed mine."
The singer who had a big impact on Haggard's life was when Cash played San Quentin in 1958. (Cash would return in 1969 and record the live album "At San Quentin.") Haggard had already decided that prison life wasn't for him and had formed a band behind bars, but Cash's performance was impressive, especially since Haggard wasn't a fan.
"I didn't like Johnny Cash. I thought he was kind of corny. I wasn't really a fan," Haggard recalls. "When he came there, he'd been roaring the night before in San Francisco and had blown his voice. He couldn't talk above a whisper, but he was able to absolutely waylay that crowd. Five-thousand prisoners is a good way to check your talent. I was impressed with his ability to handle that crowd without a voice. I'll always remember that."
A decade later, Haggard was a guest on ABC's "The Johnny Cash Show," and surprised the Man in Black by revealing that he was in the audience that night in San Quentin. Haggard had kept his prison record quiet and was afraid word would get out that he was a convict. Cash told him to confront his past instead of running from it.
"He talked me into telling America that I'd been to prison. He said, 'If you let me do this, they'll never be able to hurt you in the tabloids and you'll be free.' It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, let anyone know I'd been to prison. But we done it and he was right. I didn't have anything to hide," Haggard says.
With more than 50 years as a musician under his belt, Haggard isn't ready to kick back and rest just yet.
"I think about what's it going to be like in the next 10 years," he says. "I feel fine right now. I don't really have much sign of aging and I've been through cancer, so I ain't scared of that no more. Looks like somebody wants me alive, so I'm gonna do my best to act like I'm alive. I still enjoy playing. The traveling gets a little rougher every year, but maybe they'll fix the roads."
If you go
Who: Merle Haggard and guest Kris Kristofferson with Sturgill Simpson
When: Gates open at 5 p.m., music starts at 7 p.m.
Where: Bluestem Center for the Arts, 801 50th Ave. S., Moorhead.
Info: Tickets range from $39.50 general admission lawn to $59.50 for g.a. benches and $95 for reserved seats, additional fees may apply. Tickets at the Tickets300 box office, jadepresents.com or (866) 300-8300.