Magazine Feature

Merle Haggard on Death: 'Sometimes I Fear It and Other Times It Calls to Me Like a Forgotten Dream' (Exclusive)

Merle Haggard 2016
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Merle Haggard photographed in the early 1970's. 

Last summer Merle Haggard invited me to his ranch outside Redding, Calif., to discuss collaborating on an autobiography that was never realized.  

“Might start off with a story about Bob Eubanks,” said Merle, “the host of The Newlyweds. I’ve known ol’ Bob forever. We’re about the same age, pushing 80. Bumped into Bob long ago and the first thing he said was, 'Merle you need a facelift.’

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“Well, I looked him square in the eye before saying, 'Bob, your face looks like it caught on fire and somebody beat out the flames with a track shoe. If that’s what a facelift looks like, I don’t want no part of it.”

Merle wanted to be seen the way he was.

“Wrote a tune not long called 'I Am What I Am,’” he said, “that sums me up pretty damn good. Song says, “I believe Jesus is God and a pig is just ham…I’m a seeker, I’m a sinner, and I am what I am.”

Seated in an easy chair in the living room of his modest home, he discussed a recent operation that removed a cancer from his lung, the cancer that ultimately returned and took his life on April 6 at age 79.

“All this near-death stuff has me thinking that it’s time to reconcile all the many Merles. There’s Merle the daddy’s boy, the son of a railroad man. Then there’s the juvenile delinquent Merle who tore up more than one reform school, the Merle who spent a decade of hard time in prison, the Merle who had the guts to stand up in those Bakersfield barrooms imitating his idol Lefty Frizzell, the Merle who finally found his own voice and muddled his way through show business. And most devilishly complicated of all, the Merle of four marriages.”

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As we talked for hours, afternoon turned to evening. Merle glanced out the window and reflected on the drought punishing his land.

“Sure as I’m sitting here, we’re burning up this planet,” he said. “Man, I can see confusion in the eyes of all the animals that share our property. All their predictable patterns are gone. They’re frightened by the unnatural changes coming on. Like me, they’re thirsty for the old ways.”

Darkness fell. Merle grew quiet. He slipped in a DVD of his favorite preacher, Dr. Gene Scott, who spoke of eternal life. When the sermon ended, I asked Merle whether he feared death.

“Sometimes I fear it,” he said, “and other times it calls to me like a forgotten dream or an old song. I’m not saying I welcome it, but I recognize it as part of a holy process. Born of nature, return to nature. Maybe that’s the name of my last song.”