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Merle Haggard Tries His Hand at Bluegrass

Merle Haggard has been churning out albums for nearly 40 years, fashioning a career as an iconoclastic country-music legend and scoring dozens of hits — including that slap at the hippie generation, "Okie from Muskogee." Now 70, "The Hag" has just made a foray into bluegrass: The Bluegrass Sessions features revamped versions of songs both old and new.

One of the new tracks, "Learning to Live with Myself," was written in his bathtub — or at least, according to Haggard, "There was water everywhere."

"At my age, I've learned how to live with my spouse and I've learned how to live with my beautiful children," Haggard says. "I learned how to be friends with everybody and do everything. The only thing I hadn't learned how to do was to learn to live with myself. I think that's probably the hardest thing we all have to do. We can lie to everybody else, but you can't lie to yourself."

The outlaw country singer's songs seem to come from another place. Always writing and picking up on some idea when it comes through, Haggard sometimes finds inspiration hitting at inopportune times, like in the bathtub or minutes before he and his band need to go on stage. Haggard says he can't just sit down with a pen and paper; instead, his best material comes out unexpectedly.

"If it's not good enough to remember until you get to a pencil, it's usually not very good," Haggard says.

Even though Haggard's political and social commentary has been scattered — yet successful at times — he now realizes its eminent import. "What Happened?" opens with the line, "It used to be Andy and Barney Fife / Now it's Howard Stern and the brothel life." It's a striking lament for how the country has changed.

"Financially, we're broke," Haggard says. "Nobody has any confidence in the man in charge. We're torturing people; we're not known to be that kind of people. People all over the world look up to us, and we're not setting a very good example."

Haggard also wonders about retirement and jokingly worries about forgetting something as simple as a G-chord. His age has slowed him down a little, but he continues on for other reasons.

"It's not exciting like it used to be — I'm not excited about it," Haggard says. "There are a lot of other people I owe my success to, and you got to at least take them in consideration."

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As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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