SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. — To Merle Haggard, his songs are like children.
“They all have different personalities, and different life spans,” he said, during a recent telephone interview from his office in Redding, Calif.
And he should know. The 75-year old wrote dozens of hit songs in a career that has spanned almost as many years.
During the course of his legendary career, Haggard has racked up 40 No. 1 songs, multiple wins as the Academy of Country Music’s Top Male Vocalist, Entertainer of the Year for both the ACM and Country Music Association, Grammy awards, and the Kennedy Center Honors for a lifetime achievement for the performing arts.
But when asked which of these accolades he holds closest to his heart, he replied, “The song awards, the (Broadcast Music Inc.) awards, are probably the most valuable. The life of a child is indicated in those awards,” he said.
“The Hag,” as he is known to country music fans, will bring some of those songs to the H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center at Shippensburg University at 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 17.
“We’ll have a good time — I promise you,” Haggard said. “We’re just bringing country music and country humor. We bring to the stage 100 songs that have been in the Top 100 in American music throughout the years, and we grab from that material and we do an ad-lib show.”
Haggard also said he and his band will gauge the direction the show takes from cues in the audience.
“You listen to the people. Sometimes they wanna listen and sometimes they wanna participate. And (we) kinda go with the flow,” he said.
Haggard is back to performing steadily since his last tour, when he was sidelined with pneumonia earlier this year. He said he spent 10 days in the hospital as a result of his illness, but he made a full recovery.
“I’m clear now, and everything’s all right. I’m back up and running,” said the singer, who has also battled lung cancer and heart problems.
Haggard is adamant that illness and age have not slowed his career down, at least not intentionally.
“There is nothing I could do that would be as much fun as what I do. I do it because I enjoy it,” he said.
Also known as the “poet of the common man,” Haggard has written songs that cover a wide gamut of personalities, including blue-collar workers, patriots, lovers, the heartbroken and the down and out.
Looking back over the nearly 50 years as a country-music artist, Haggard said he had to work hard to write songs that resonate with so many people.
“I had to kind of pull myself up by my own bootstraps,” he said. “And I experienced a lot of things in my life. At the time I didn’t know that they would be material for songs that I would write ... but that’s the way it turned out.”
Haggard is a onetime criminal who served time in San Quentin State Prison in California. He’s been married five times. And he is aligned with the outlaw country movement of the late 1970s.
In the past, he has voiced his opposition to the nontraditional sound of modern country music, but spoke kindly of the status of the franchise.
“(The industry is) doing quite well with (modern country),” Haggard said. “They’re selling lot of records. They got a large following. It’s more like rock ’n’ roll used to be. It’s appealing more to the younger audience.”
Still the “Okie from Muskogee” continues to work hard.
“We’re working on a live story film,” he said. The script is still in development, and Haggard said he also plans to write new music for it.
While he said his audience demographic varies based on location, he said he isn’t surprised to see ages “3 to 93,” at his shows.
“I stepped off the bus the other day and there was a little girl about 3 years old ..., and she said, ‘Is that the man that sings “Big City”?’” Haggard said. “(That) told me a couple things. The song is more important than the artist, and there was a little girl there that wanted to know about that. Interesting.”
If you go ...
WHAT: Merle Haggard concert
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 17
WHERE: H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center at Shippensburg University, Shippensburg University, off Bucks Drive, Shippensburg, Pa.
COST: $42 to $57
CONTACT: Go to www.luhrscenter.com or call 717-477-7469