LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Merle Haggard is not letting a bout with lung cancer get in the way of his ambitious touring and recording plans.
Seven weeks after the 71-year-old country legend had a lemon-sized tumor removed in what he calls “the greatest test of my fortitude,” he said on Wednesday that he expects to work harder in 2009 than he has in 20 years.
Haggard says he is singing better now that he is in the throes of kicking his daily marijuana habit. More importantly, the son of Depression-era Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma views himself as a cheerleader during tough times.
“I think we can stir up some good humor out there among the folks that are crying for good news, and just give them a moment’s happiness,” he told Reuters.
Haggard will play his first concerts in a little over two months on Friday and Saturday in his central California hometown of Bakersfield.
They will be the first shows of his life where he has not loosened up before with either tobacco or marijuana, he said. “So it’s gonna be interesting as to what kind of a show comes out of this body that’s used to performing the other way.”
Haggard, who once derided pot-smoking hippies in his 1969 hit “Okie From Muskogee,” got hooked on marijuana after a doctor said it was a good substitute for his Valium habit.
He gave up a few times over the years, but “nothing was funny,” he said. He quit again, four days before going under the knife on November 3, and prays that he does not lose his creative mojo.
Doctors removed the upper lobe of his right lung, and Haggard said he does not require any radiation or chemotherapy. With a clean bill of health, he is mapping out his 2009 itinerary and is eyeing some unusual venues, namely churches, hospitals and prisons.
“Especially women’s prisons, they get overlooked,” he said. “We played a women’s prison in Wyoming one time, and it was the greatest response I’ve ever received in my life. Forty women was all that were there, and 40 women cried when we left.”
Haggard can relate to that crowd. From the ages of 14 to 23, he was in and out of institutions for various petty crimes. He spent his 21st birthday behind bars at San Quentin State Prison, where he served nearly three years for burglary. In 1959, prisoner 45200 watched Johnny Cash perform there.
Haggard eventually found fame in the late 1960s with such chart-topping tunes as “Branded Man,” which was inspired by his fear that his criminal past would become public knowledge. A follow-up ballad “Sing Me Back Home” was inspired by a San Quentin buddy who eventually was executed.
With 39 No. 1 hits to his credit, Haggard ranks alongside Cash, George Jones and Willie Nelson as a giant of country music. But his elegantly crafted tunes have drawn from all musical genres, including, folk, pop, jazz, blues and rock. Artists as diverse as the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello, John Fogerty and Lynyrd Skynyrd have covered his compositions.
After spending much of the ‘80s and ‘90s in the commercial wilderness, he has hit his stride again with some acclaimed albums, most recently 2007’s “The Bluegrass Sessions.” He has finished a double-disc set that combines studio recordings and live tracks, but has not yet decided how to release it.
Companies with whom Haggard has worked in recent years, including Los Angeles-based punk label Epitaph Records and Nashville-based McCoury Records, keep asking him for more material, “so we’re not without options,” he said.
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Vicki Allen