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Working man's dues

Country icon Merle Haggard beats the odds



Merle Haggard is making up for lost time this summer. The country legend, who turned 75 earlier this year, was in the midst of promoting his most recent album, Working in Tennessee, when he was rushed to the hospital in January.

Haggard's doctors initially feared the worst: that he was dealing with a return of the lung cancer he'd been diagnosed with in 2008, and for which he'd subsequently been treated and given the all-clear.

"The first 30 hours down there in the hospital in Georgia, I thought it was all over," says Haggard. "They said it was a 65 percent chance that the cancer has returned. It was tough. You really got a good chance to look at yourself."

The following day, Haggard was diagnosed with pneumonia. "I got it bad and I had to spend 10 days on intravenous inside the hospital. But I'm 100 percent clear, and I've gained my strength back. I had some bleeding ulcers. My hemoglobin count was bad. Hell, I was bleeding to death and didn't even know it."

Haggard isn't behaving like someone who's worried about his health these days. He's in the middle of a U.S. tour that has dates booked into October. He's also got his eye on undertaking a world tour, and his management is exploring the possibilities of making a feature-length movie.

"We really don't have a working title," says the musician, "but it would be me and my life and my love story with Bonnie Owens and how we got started, coming out of prison and [achieving] fame."

Haggard's life has certainly been dramatic enough for the big screen. Growing up in a Bakersfield, Calif., suburb, he lost his father when he was 9, and as he entered his teens, began to run afoul of the law, getting arrested for truancy and petty larceny. After being in and out of jail, he landed in San Quentin state prison in 1957 for attempting to rob a Bakersfield tavern.

While serving his three-year sentence, Haggard got his life back together, earned a high school equivalency diploma, and began to focus on writing and playing country music. He notched his first Top 10 hit with "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" in 1965, and was soon cranking out one hit after another, as songs like "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," "Okie From Muskogee," "Mama Tried" and "If We Make It Through December" propelled him to the top ranks of country music and earned him a reputation as a champion of the working man.

Haggard's fortunes waned in the early 1980s, but after signing with the rock label, Anti- Records, in 2000 for two albums, he began another prolific stretch of record-making that's included studio albums, among them last October's Working in Tennessee.

Out on the road with the latest edition of his long-running band, the Strangers, Haggard promises a typical show will include a few tunes from Working in Tennessee — a solid album that stays true to Haggard's rough-hewn country sound — as well as songs from a back catalog that includes some 100 charting singles.

"We try to do things that are surprising and move in a direction that looks good, feels good and sounds good," says Haggard. "I just let the evening evolve. And sometimes it's real good and sometimes it's not so good. But it's always interesting."

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