Merle Haggard, flopped down on his big, old TV chair, is high. The 76-year-old living legend offers this fun fact about halfway through our phone interview last week from his home near Shasta Lake in California.
“It’s been at least 20 or 30 minutes,” Haggard says, with a chuckle, after being asked about the last time he enjoyed some marijuana.
Three days before playing with his ace band The Strangers at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Haggard will hit the stage Sunday at the Grammy Awards with old pals Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and the baby country star of the bunch, Blake Shelton.
Haggard says the performance will include him singing his big hit “Okie From Muskogee.” A favorite of President Richard Nixon, who invited Haggard to the White House, the song quickly became an anthem for the silent majority during the height of hippiedom. It includes the line, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.”
“To be a good writer you have to write things you don’t exactly agree with,” Haggard told me in 2002. “I wrote ‘Okie From Muskogee.’ That doesn’t necessarily mean I agree with that mentality – I just try to report conditions. ‘Okie from Muskogee’ was the condition in 1968 that was not being represented.”
Since our last conversation, Haggard, the greatest country music songwriter since Hank Williams, Sr., has continued to release fresh, compelling material and perform vibrantly in concert to enthusiastic crowds. He also received a Kennedy Center Honor, presented to him a few years ago by President Barack Obama. In addition, Haggard has managed to create some controversy in the past decade with material that probably wouldn’t get him invited back to Nixon’s White House.
The singer’s 2003 album “Haggard Like Never Before” includes the song “In the News.” It finds the American icon questioning our nation’s foreign policy and the media’s coverage of the Iraq war. “Politicians do all the talking, soldiers pay the dues, suddenly the war is over, that’s the news,” Haggard plaintively sings.
Haggard’s latest album, 2011’s “Working in Tennessee,” includes the gem “Laugh it Off.” It’s humorous and uplifting and includes a hilarious line about happily using “marijuana guaranteed to make you cough.”
“I’m a cancer survivor, I had a lung operation in 2008 and they took out a piece of my lung, I was ordered to use marijuana,” Haggard says. “Either that or take a bunch of medication that I didn’t want to be hooked on. We are about to see marijuana take on a different standing. Even if nobody ever smoked it, the industrial reasons for its legalization are overwhelming and people are realizing that could save our economy, if they look at the truth.”
Haggard’s longtime friend and frequent collaborator Willie Nelson is one of pot’s greatest proponents. Guesting on the remake of Haggard’s classic “Workin’ Man Blues” that closes “Working in Tennessee,” Nelson improvises a line about getting “high.” Perhaps Nelson, along with the doctors, of course, influenced Haggard’s decision to use weed.
“People talk about marijuana making you forget things,” Haggard says. “Forget things? How come Willie Nelson can sing for hours and not forget a thing?”
8 p.m. Wednesday, January 29; Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; $52.62-$63.32; 953-3368; vanwezel.org.