Goodbye Merle Haggard: The Last Interview

Neil StraussNeil, Uncategorized

Today, the world lost one of the greatest country musicians of all time.

Merle Haggard, who died on the day he turned 79 today, is the American dream personified. Born to a hardscrabble family, he lost his father at age nine, was in juvenile detention homes by the time he was thirteen for shoplifting from a lingerie store, and was in prison for attempting to rob a bar at age twenty. Three decades later, with some forty number-one country singles to his name, he’d become one of the most legendary country singers of his time and was even pardoned for his crimes by Ronald Reagan.

The following is from the last interview I conducted with him, as anthologized in Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead.

What’s the most meaningful lesson you’ve learned about life?
Merle Haggard: Honesty.

Why honesty?
I don’t know. It somehow or another just came to me (laughs). It just seemed like the right thing to do.

Was there ever a point when you were less honest than you are now, like when you were in jail?
(Clears throat) No, I always wanted to be honest. Ever since I can remember thinking about anything, I knew that that was necessary.

Was it a struggle or was it something that came easy?
It’s kind of like gravity. The first time I lied to somebody, I couldn’t live with it for ten minutes. I had to straighten that out. I just didn’t want that to happen. And the other thing is that I don’t have that good of a memory. You know, if I lie to somebody, I’d have to remember it.

So when in life did you learn that?
About the same time I learned gravity.

Yeah, it was right around in there. I was real young when I realized. My father was my first idol and I heard him say that he couldn’t stand a liar. And that went all the way through me.

But what about the small lies, like telling someone you’re late because you’re caught in traffic?
I may be guilty of those and have used those to keep from hurting people’s feelings and things like that. But I really have been working on that area and I find that when you take the time to tell the truth, it’s usually more interesting. And a lie is obvious. I mean, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

I was interviewing Chuck Berry and he put it in a great way: “There’s nothing that stands up straighter than the truth.”
He’s right. Lying is a terrible sin and something we’re not supposed to do. And we should be happy to not do it. How’s Chuck’s health?

Chuck is in amazing health. He’s really sharp.
Well, ahh, I hope Chuck lives forever and I hope I get to meet him soon.

For more, read my Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine’s epic profile of Merle here.