NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In a lot of ways, Merle Haggard has always moved to a country music soundtrack.
The music he loved changed his life repeatedly. He was born in the perfect place to become a star — Bakersfield, Calif. — and after an often rocky start, succeeded in achieving heights few have reached.
"They called it by a different name," Haggard said. "They called it hillbilly music. And I liked it from the very first memories of life. I liked other music, too. I liked Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and people like that. But there was kind of an original hillbilly sound that was coming from around Bakersfield that went on to be world famous. And I was not smart enough at the time to realize it was happening."
Haggard was in a lighthearted mood this week as Music City celebrated an icon who feels reinvigorated after a long period of poor health. He toured the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum's new Bakersfield Sound exhibit, its tribute to the wave of California musicians who made a play for the soul of country music in the 1950s and '60s.
He popped up as a surprise guest at Keith Urban and Vince Gill's All For The Hall benefit concert. He joined Twitter and tweeted often. And he capped a busy 48 hours with a raucous Ryman Auditorium show that drew an eclectic crowd that included mustachioed young hipsters and octogenarians.
A week after he turned 75, Haggard spent a lot of time reminiscing and thinking about the past, something he admits he enjoys.
"It's been an interesting life, to say the least," Haggard said.
Bakersfield's rise to national acclaim mirrored Haggard's own. Both started out as ragged ruffians in a barroom scene populated by oil roustabouts and Saturday night party people before riding the rise of television to take the U.S. by storm.
Haggard and the music he helped popularize with figures like Buck Owens were direct counterpoints to the increasingly sophisticated Nashville sound. After walking through the exhibit, Haggard sat in the museum's reading room with old friend and steel guitar player Fuzzy Owen, his bandleader Norm Hamlet, longtime tour manager Frank Mull and others to talk about Bakersfield and its lasting impact.
"The difference between Nashville music and Bakersfield music was barrooms," Haggard said. "They didn't have barrooms here. It was church music and the Saturday night Grand Ole Opry ... there was a religious air about it. Whereas Bakersfield seemed to come from the barrooms. It was electric. Electrified. Telecasters. Our town probably did more for the sale of telecasters than anybody in the world."
Haggard admits to knowing a thing or two about the bar scene of the day. Born in 1937, he entered the 1950s at an impressionable age. Country music seemed like it was everywhere. It rolled out of the radio and every little town had a new TV station with an hour dedicated to a sound that resonated within the rural communities of California populated by Okies, Arkies and others who went West for work.
The chance to see live music was all around, too.
"There was probably 25 beer joints with bands in them in Bakersfield, and I was at a questionable age as to whether I could go in," Haggard said. "I went in anyway."
As the exhibit points out, it wasn't long till those kinds of decisions got Haggard in trouble. He served three years in San Quentin for burglary and a series of nonviolent crimes. While in prison, country music intervened again when Johnny Cash played for inmates. The performance inspired Haggard to pursue the slightly more upstanding lifestyle of country music.
His first gig was playing bass in Buck Owens' band, and he joked that he spent much of his early career filling jobs Owens had recently vacated. He put together his own band, The Strangers, in 1965.
"We started in a '65 Pontiac with a teardrop trailer," Haggard said. "We quickly moved to a camper and stayed in that for eight months. We got our first bus in '66. Since then I've worn out 15 Greyhound buses."
Haggard would go on to write iconic songs like "Workin' Man's Blues" and "Okie From Muskogee," songs he shared with thousands of fans in Nashville during his stay.
The visit comes three months after Haggard was treated for double pneumonia, then diagnosed with stomach ulcers and colon polyps. Dressed in his trademark black hat, a gray sporting jacket, ornate white cowboy boots and a Life Is Good sweatshirt, Haggard looked fit and strong while touring the museum. He also was a forceful presence on stage with The Strangers, an outfit that now includes his son, Ben.
"I feel better than I have in many years," Haggard said.