Merle Haggard can't sing.
Standing with his sweatpants tucked into his cowboy boots, doing a sound check at QVC Studios in West Chester, the craggy-faced country titan is without a voice.
Haggard has just completed a three-day bus trek from his Northern California compound for the specific purpose of performing two songs - "Mama Tried" and "Workin' Man Blues" - on the cable shopping channel to push his four-CD box set, Down Every Road, 1962-1994.
The 100-song summation of Haggard's magnificent career, the scope of which has been matched by few American musicians, has been out for three years. But to Haggard and manager Rose Waters, the long haul to Chester County makes perfect sense. As for his mode of transportation, it's not because he's afraid to fly - in fact, he has his own pilot's license. It's because the 62-year-old Haggard thinks the way commercial airlines treat their customers is "insulting."
"I'd rather fight Mike Tyson than go through an airport," says the famously stubborn iconoclast.
Haggard has come to QVC, he says, because when Capitol issued the box, the label barely lifted a finger to promote it. "So the main base of my buying public doesn't even know it's out. I'm using QVC to take it directly to the people."
And now his pilgrimage is threatened by a head cold and sore throat that are preventing him from doing anything more than mumbling the words to two of his best-loved songs.
No one seems too worried. Haggard's 15 minutes are still a couple of hours off, and everyone on hand - Waters; his familiar band, the Strangers; and his ex-wife and longtime backup singer, Bonnie Owens - is confident that Haggard will be ready when show time arrives.
Isn't he always? Haggard has pretty much lived on the road since he become a rising country star shortly after his 1960 parole from San Quentin. He was 18 months into a sentence for a bungled armed robbery. (Drunk, he and some buddies broke into a restaurant at what they thought was 3 a.m.: It was actually 10:30 p.m., and the place was still open.) "Down every road, there's always one more city," he sang in the 1966 hit "The Fugitive." "I'm on the run, the highway is my home."
His run at the top - 38 No. 1 country hits, from "Sing Me Back Home" to "Okie From Muskogee" - ended in the mid-'80s, when a generation of Haggard acolytes, including Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and Clint Black, pushed him off country radio. But Haggard does just fine on the road, playing more than 100 dates a year, with no signs of slacking off. Tomorrow night, he'll be in New York for a rare club show at Tramps, and will be back this way on Aug. 14 for a show at the Pat Garrett Music Park in Strausstown.
The sanguine, show-will-go-on confidence of Haggard's entourage is, it turns out, based on a time-tested home remedy. As he sits down to be interviewed in a backstage green room - after improbably crossing paths with David Crosby, also at QVC to hawk his wares - the wiry, smallish Haggard starts in on a cup of lemon herb tea with lots of honey. After a few sips, he sends a gopher to the bus to fetch his bottle of George Dickel whiskey. With the Dickel added, Haggard's voice loosens up, and he lets out a few yodels to test it.
Haggard hasn't had a label deal since Curb Records dropped him following the commercial failure of 1996, a bare-bones album that contained some of his most engagingly loose-limbed and soulful music in years. The album - which includes a cover of "No Time to Cry," written by his favorite contemporary country artist, Iris DeMent - was released just over a year after Haggard became the youngest artist, at 57, ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. And it followed the 1994 release of two tribute albums, the superior alternative-country Tulare Dust on HighTone and the less noteworthy mainstream-artist effort, Mama's Hungry Eyes, on Arista.
Haggard would be happier, of course, if the recognition that's been heaped on him in the '90s translated into hit records. And he doesn't hide his contempt for the state of country music: "It's the same way with films," he says. "It's too perfect. It's lost a lot, and I'm not sure they realize it. When they don't allow someone with a unique approach to be heard, well that's just not interesting to me." Every two or three months, he says, "I check it to see what they're playing. And sure enough, I didn't miss anything."
But Haggard doesn't let his frustration with the industry slow him down. He's got a number of projects brewing. Most intriguingly, there's Cabin in the Hills, a three-CD boxed set that will package past Haggard gospel performances with two dozen newly recorded cuts, many recently penned by Haggard.
"If we put out a new country album now, people probably wouldn't pay any attention to it. So we're putting this out instead." He's negotiating with a number of companies interested in releasing the box. "It'll be out on one of these major labels soon," he says. "The record's too good."
Haggard has also recorded a two-disc set of his No. 1 hits, which is likely to be released on a BMG-affiliated major label this year. Plus, there's talk of a Haggard pay-per-view tribute in November, and author Tom Carter is at work on a Haggard bio, The Running Kind.
Haggard started running as a young man. He was born in Bakersfield, Calif., and raised in a converted box car, the son of Oklahomans who headed west looking for work. Virtually an only child - his youngest sibling was 14 years his senior - he became fatherless at age 9. Five years after his father's death, Haggard and a friend rode a freight train to Texas in search of the singer's hero, Western swing king Bob Wills. He would later dedicate his 1970 masterpiece A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World to Wills, and would spend three years teaching himself the instrument, to the chagrin of his band mates and then-wife, Owens.
Haggard spent most of his adolescence in reform school and juvenile detention homes before landing in San Quentin. His prison record and stubborn resistance to Nashville expectations have earned him a longstanding reputation as a loner, which he says is off-base: "I'm probably just the opposite. I'm always with somebody."
"He can't stand to be alone," confirms Owens, who was married to Haggard from 1967 until 1978. (Haggard is now married to his fifth wife, Theresa, with whom he has a young daughter and son.) "What he is, is restless. His father died when he was really young and he couldn't prove anything to him, so he had to prove it to himself."
Above all, Haggard is an individualist. He's always based his operation out of California - he lives outside of Redding, just south of Shasta Lake - and has resisted even associating himself with fellow country outlaws like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. He does as he pleases, when he pleases.
To wit, the Strangers haven't played a show with a set list since 1969. "Never!" he says. "We pride ourselves on being able to play anything. With the kind of talent we have in this band, you don't need to have lists. I try to deviate every night just to keep them from getting complacent."
When the Strangers and Haggard, still in sweats, do get up to play at QVC, it's to perform songs they do almost every night. But there is no complacency: Both "Mama" and "Workin' Man" percolate with a raw, unpolished energy, and Haggard's now well-lubricated baritone is as agile and emotionally rich as ever.
One of Haggard's favorite themes is the struggle against the homogenization and loss of freedom in American life. He's a guy who once wrote a song called "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)," who's obsessed with artists such as Wills and Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers, who recorded in the years just before he was born.
"I've been a nostalgist all my life," he says. "I believe there was more freedom, more chance to be an individual, in the first 40 years of my life than there is now. If I came out with my music now, they might not let me play it."
Haggard says "country" is too confining a tag to hang on what he does. "I don't think 'country music' describes us at all," he says with a good-natured snarl. "We play country music, we play it with pride and we play it damn good. But a lot of what we do is more like po' boy jazz. It's the unschooled player trying to play like Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden and Stephane Grappelli and Django [Reinhardt]."
Haggard laughs. "We try to be different. We try to have a little sound of our own. We try to intertwine twangy country music with twangy rock-and-roll music with rhythm and blues and a little jazz. It's sort of a four-way deal here."
In 1986, Haggard told an interviewer that "when I step on stage everything is left behind. The stage has been a kind of refuge for me.. . . Over the years, I've climbed inside my music when things went wrong." And though he often tires of the road, he now says, "that's still true."
"If I could have everybody I love in one room, the best place I could be is behind a guitar. That's best for them and best for me. In a lot of ways I'm unequipped without it: I'm like a gunfighter without a pistol," he says before heading out to perform the two songs he's driven across the country to play. "I think that's really where I should be. Up on stage."