5:40 p.m. July 16----
On the road again, just nine months after undergoing surgery for lung cancer.
He is standing at center stage in the 300-seat Northern Lights showroom at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee. He wears a black cowboy hat and black fringe jacket with white cowboy boots. He is 72 years old. His face is as ruffled as a 48-starred Old Glory.
According to a New York Times report, this is the first tour of Haggard's career that he has performed without smoking tobacco or marijuana. It is Wednesday, July 15 and Haggard is opening for Loretta Lynn, another country legend. During a break between songs he tells the sellout audience that he has conferred with Lynn for the first time in a long while. They don't see each other much. Time is a crap shoot......
.....Haggard covers all the hits in a loose one-hour set. He opens with "Workin' Man Blues " and closes with "Okie From Muskogee," accented by a feisty audience sing-along. Unlike the stuff you hear on today's country radio, Haggard cuts to the core of life's soul.
Cold beads roll down my bottle of Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy. The guy sitting across from me mentions country singer Faron Young. He committed suicide with a revolver just before Christmas 1996 and I saw Charlie Louvin at Young's Nashville wake.
Someone in the audience shouts a request for "Kern River."
It could have been me. It is my favorite Haggard song. And I have about 36 favorite Haggard songs.
Haggard recorded "Kern River" in 1984. It is one of his most poignant compositions. Haggard grew up in a converted refrigerator boxcar in Oildale, Calif., just across the Kern River from Bakersfield. These days the Kern River is as thin and drawn as the lines on Haggard's face. Years ago when visiting Buck Owens beer joint in Bakersfield (and catching the Bakersfield Dodgers) I made it a point to walk across the humble Kern River.
"I was at a truck stop in Bakersfield when I wrote that," Haggard told me during a 2000 conversation in his tour bus parked under a full moon on the outskirts of St. Louis, Mo. "We had been there two days. It had been 22 years since I fished Kern River. I woke up that morning. I didn't know anybody in town. The whole place had changed. I wondered if I could fish Kern River again."
Haggard wrote about the seeds of the Dust Bowl in the San Joaquin Valley and in his aching, curling baritone he sang, "I may drown in still water/but I'll never swim Kern River again. . . ."
"I was a stranger in my own hometown," he continued. "I'm a time traveler. I was around in 1964 and '65 and I'm still here. We travel these outskirts of town all over the world. We have an interesting view of things."
Country Music Hall of Famer Emmylou Harris has an interesting take on "Kern River." She covered it on last year's "All I Intended To Be" (Nonesuch). She told me "Kern River" was also her favorite Haggard song. "You know me, the sadder the better," she said. "And it doesn't get sadder than losing someone close to you. The way Haggard so eloquently talks about loss without really talking about the person so much--and leading it to a place--I'm a sucker for that. Everybody has their on Kern River. Plus, it's a waltz!"
My good friend Fred Speck loves Haggard too. I took Fred to the Bob Dylan-Haggard smackdown a few years ago at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. If there is any songwriter Speck loved more than Haggard it is late Chicago-St. Louis folkie Mike Jordan. "Wish you had been there with me and Jordo, 24 years ago, at my place in Lincoln Park," Speck writes in an e-mail. "We had a spirited argument over the greatest ever Merle song, while listening to the man into the wee, wee hours. He was backing 'Silver Wings' and me 'The Farmer's Daughter." Unlike most 'arguments,' though, neither of us had a single negative thing to say about the other's choice! Your chiming in on behalf of 'Kern River' would have made an unforgettable night even more so."
Haggard, the road and old rivers. Always unforgettable.