For 50 years, Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Haggard smoked Camel shorts without a filter. He finally quit cold turkey in 1991, he says, when he couldn’t get a fresh one:
“They started putting so many chemicals in ’em to make their shelf life longer that they ruined the tobacco. So I got mad at ’em and stopped.”
So he was stunned three years ago when he was diagnosed with lung cancer by doctors at two hospitals. “It was oat cell, the worst kind, where you’ve got to pack your bags because you’ve got about eight months to live,” he says.
The indestructible Hag not only survived, he returned. At 74, he has a rustic new recording on Vanguard, “Working in Tennessee,” which he’ll premiere at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass this weekend.
On it, he sings about eight peaceful years spent living “Down on the Houseboat.” He also duets with his wife Theresa on the Cash/Carter classic “Jackson” and with his guitarist son Ben on his own standard “Workin’ Man Blues.”
But he still has so many socio-political pet peeves, he had to edit three minutes from his “What I Hate” rant.
He’s also penning a new anti-government track called “Shut It Down”: “If you can’t run it right, push a reset button and shut it down,” he writes about the divisive U.S. Congress.
How did Haggard defeat carcinoma? In his darkest moments, the night before the biopsy reading, his wife quietly disappeared for an hour or so.
“The next morning, the doctors said, ‘Well, we can tell you one thing — it’s not oat cell,’ so I was glad to hear that,” he says. “The cancer was isolated to one lobe of my lung, so they got in there and got it, and I came back to work two months after surgery. But after the fact, Theresa told me she’d gone into a gospel church and prayed for me.” With an entire congregation.
The health scares continued. “I had this situation occur down in Fort Worth where I thought I had a heart problem,” says Haggard, who sought two opinions, and both cited serious damage.
“In the meantime, there were a lot more prayers, and when they went in with the angiogram, there were no blockages, no obstructions. They said I had a young man’s heart,” he says.
Haggard hasn’t attended church since he was 12.
“I believe in a supreme being and in Jesus Christ — I just don’t believe in preachers,” he says.
But prayer works? He pauses. “Well, it sure does in my case! Because those were two miracles right there, and I’d be a fool if I didn’t notice that.”
IF YOU GO
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2011
Where: Speedway, Lindley and Marx meadows, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday-Sunday
- On the Richmond side of the park, access the 5-Fulton, 31-Balboa and 38 Geary lines
- On the Sunset side, take the N-Judah
With Kris Kristofferson
Where: Star Stage, Speedway Meadow, Golden Gate Park
When: 2:20 p.m. Saturday