Merle Haggard had a rough end of the year.
In December, the 78-year-old country legend was hospitalized for double pneumonia, forcing him to cancel a string of shows. Haggard returned to the road, but fell ill again with pneumonia, canceling more dates. “I’m really lucky to be alive,” he recently told Rolling Stone. His health scares have left many wondering how much longer he will continue to tour.
Probably until his dying breath.
In Garden & Gun‘s interview with Haggard and rising outlaw star Sturgill Simpson interviewer Matt Hendrickson asked the Hag why he continues to press on despite pleas from his family to quit the road.
“I can’t,” said Haggard. “I feel it’s a double-edged sword. It’s what keeps me alive and it’s what f**ks up my life.”
At this point, Haggard probably doesn’t need the road to support himself financially, but he does need it to fulfill himself as a musician. All of the greats are road dogs. The road is part of their purpose, their identity. They know no other way. Even Simpson, who’s just getting his career going, seems to feel that way.
“Between being in the navy and the railroad and everything else I’ve ever done in my life, I never knew what tired was until I was at this job. But you get off the road for two or three weeks and you’re sitting on the couch, you don’t really know what to do with yourself. I’m not meant to sit on the couch and not play music.”
Musicians who make their bread and build their fanbase on the road often feel that way. Not touring feels like not working, and country music is the working man’s music. It’s road music.
Both Haggard and Simpson’s comments also speak to the type of country music they make, and why defenders of traditional country music often hail them as heroes.
The best country music comes from hard experiences, from artists who have put in the time on the grinding club circuits, lived a blue-collar life, and who have woodshedded their craft for years. Simpson and the Haggard, like many other country artists, have done all of that. Those experiences resonate in their music, and it’s why they’re kindred spirits.
It’s also why Haggard probably won’t ever hang up his hat. When he does, guys like Simpson will still be on the road.
And the circle will continue.