Straight-talkin’ Haggard ‘Last of the Breed’ 

You've got to hand it to Merle Haggard. The 69-year-old country legend doesn't mince words when it comes to politics. While washing breakfast dishes on his 200-acre Lake Shasta estate, he recalled the president's State of the Union address he'd watched the night before, and couldn't resist laughing.

"I think the reason Bush did such a good job last night was that probably, for the first time since he's been there, it sounded like he might've written his own speech," he said. "He didn't act like he was reading anything. He actually remembered what he wanted to say and carried it off. If he was in prison, you'd say he was 'becoming institutionalized.'"

Haggard didn't just pull that metaphor from his trademark felt fedora. Part of his early mystique - a bare-knuckled legitimacy that's carried through to his latest album "Chicago Wind" and anti-war anthems such as "Rebuild America First" and "Where's All the Freedom" - is the three-year stint he served at San Quentin in the late '50s.

When he finally barreled out of Bakersfield in the mid-'60s with jail-themed originals such as "Mama Tried," "Branded Man" and "Sing Me Back Home" with a thumbs-up from Johnny Cash (whose San Quentin concerts he'd witnessed), the Hag, as he came to be known, clearly meant every hard-lived word he was singing.

In the process, he helped define country's edgier, electric-guitar-driven Bakersfield Sound.

Taking swipes at Bush with velvet gloves? Not the Hag's style. The state speech, he said, "mentioned everything that needed to be done, but I don't know that [Bush] has any solutions for anything. So I was pretty underwhelmed with it. In the last 10 to 15 years, we've been relieved of our rights, and we have no nightlife in America. I think we've forgotten how to party. We've gone from a doped-up, completely screwed-up society to the other side of the wheel, where they've screwed the lid down so tight it doesn't resemble anything except something like Germany in about 1938."

Hence, the whiskey-throated singer's new lyrical stance in "Let's get out of Iraq an' get back on the track."

"But like Willie Nelson said, 'Fortunately, we're not in charge,'" laughs Haggard, who'll be releasing a new 20-song set, "Last of the Breed," with his old buddies Nelson and Ray Price in March, after headlining a solo show at Oakland's Paramount Theatre on Feb. 9.

Haggard swears he can't help himself; he gets angry and starts composing. "And songwriting is the basis for all of it for me, and it's the most interesting part. Plus I think it gives you more credibility than just singing does."

 For 40 minutes, the Grammy winner holds forth on his pet peeves: the absence of widespread solar power, genetically-modified foods, global warming and the recent California crop freeze, and Hurricane Katrina victims.

He catches himself, then flashes back on the choices, some wise, some reckless, he has made over the years. At 17, he says, "I started working for a geophysical company, searching for oil, and that company went on to be called Texas Instruments. Later, I owned 25 burger franchises before they became a national chain. They were confined to Ohio only, I think." Yes, for face value Haggard sold his prescient stake in Wendy's.

Still, Haggard says life's been good to him: "I've been fortunate enough to maintain good health, I've got a 14-year-old son whom I'm very proud of, and I've got, I think, four or five great-grandsons. I've got a pretty wife and I'm going to be 70 years old April 6."

But to survive, you've got to be somewhat of a gambler at heart. Manytimes in my life, I could've taken a steady job somewhere and forgotten about anything else. And lived and died and probably been in the grave by now if I'd chosen some other route."

Watch Merle Haggard perform "Sing Me Back Home" with Johnny Cash in 1969 (below):

IF YOU GO

Merle Haggard and Neko Case

Where: Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb 9

Tickets: $44.50 to $49.50

Contact: (415) 421-8497 or www.ticketmaster.com

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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