"I've seen our greatest leaders break their people's hearts." - I've Seen It Go Away - Merle Haggard.

Fame is a fickle friend or foe - just ask former Californian convict and country legend Merle Haggard.

The singer, now 73, boomeranged from lung cancer 18 months ago to make one of his best albums of his career - his 76th.

It's simple for the singer who turned 21 in San Quentin after a bungled back door burglary on a Bakersfield restaurant when it was still serving dessert.

We'll return to that later.

So when Merle hooked up as producer with Lou Bradley he tore up his back pages for fodder.

The singer's rollcall of heroes Bob Wills and Elvis ignites his entrée I've Seen It Go Away.

"When you've seen the very best/ the rest can hardly play."

Merle is not referring to old mate Shotgun Willie Nelson whose latest album Country Music shares the top of the prestigious Americana charts with The Hag.

But Merle doesn't stop with musical pretenders - he pillories precious politicians (some of whom have eulogised him).

"Well, most everything that I thought I knew, I didn't know, and I think opinions change over the years," Haggard revealed recently.

"That's why most politicians are liars - because if one of them changes their mind, it upsets a lot of the party. But that's human nature. We change. We do not stay the same. We have different skin every so often, and I think our whole being changes and is ever changing. And we're not the same, any of us."

Yes, fame can be a fleeting friend if you burn it on the vine.


"We're having good times again, in old honky tonk bars/ staying out late again, making love 'neath the stars/the children are grown now as our sunset appears." - We're Falling In Love Again - Merle Haggard.

But Haggard, who kissed the altar five times, reflects on diverse shades of romance in Pretty When It's New and Live And Love Always.

The latter is a swinging soiree with singing spouse Theresa - a Samaritan who rescued him in 1993 before joining him on his 1996 Australian tour.

Theresa returns as co-writer on romance recovery How Did You Find Me Here.

She also harmonises on nostalgic Oil Tanker Train - ripped from his love affair with locos but daubed with a little self-deprecation.

Equally powerful is We're Falling In Love Again with lachrymose lava heated by Scott Joss's fiddle.

Guitarist son Ben, 17 and youngest of six offspring including singing siblings Noel and Marty, joins the septuagenarian on harmonies.

Haggard is well qualified to sing of resurrected love - previous singing spouses included Leona Williams and Bonnie Owens.

Owens, widow of late Bakersfield legend Buck, also toured here with Merle long after splitting with both Buck and The Hag.

For eagle-eyed observers it was a harmonic history to catch the fifth Mrs Haggard watching from the wings of Myer Music Bowl as the second Mrs Haggard sang duets with The Hag.

Fans of seven times wed Texan Steve Earle had to settle for the fellow former convict sharing darker Australian stages and microphones with latest wife Alison Moorer.


"I've never been much at making believe/don't have any tricks hidden up my sleeve/ if life is a harmony where's all the laughter/ because here on this stage I'm a bad actor." - Bad Actor - Merle Haggard.

There's self-loathing when Merle plays the lead in Bad Actor, paternal pride in Down At The End Of The Road and rejected temptations of the flesh on the road in Stranger In The City.

That's the magic of Haggard - his music is a reality-rooted reflection of his own life.

Even when he's south of the border with fiddler Joss guesting on guitar and harmonies with Theresa and trumpeter Don Markham on Mexican Bands.

Haggard has no shortage of fellow guitarists - legendary Reggie Young and Red Lane, young Ben and Tim Howard.

Pianist Doug Colosio injects a western swing flavour with Strangers ace Norm Hamlet, a 2005 quadruple heart bypass survivor, wheeling out his pedal steel in the comfort of the singer's home studio.

Haggard makes no apologies for his vast past but is no longer a lonesome fugitive or drifter on his fitting finale - the title track.

"I believe Jesus is God and a pig is just ham/ I'm just a seeker, I'm just a sinner/ I am what I am."

Yes, a delicious dish.



Haggard, who lost a brother to lung cancer at 74, has sung the praises of his surgeons.

"It was November 3, 2008," Haggard revealed in a recent interview.

"I went in for surgery and had the top part of my right lung removed. It had a suspended, isolated cancer in there, and they got it. I didn't have to do chemo or anything like that, and I healed up real well. I think that it makes you look for ways to clean up your act when you get that close to the deal. I was 71 years old, and I said, "Uh-oh. Lung cancer. That's what I need right now." Insurance companies know when to kick you out. There I was - 71 and hear "lung cancer," but as it turned out, it's been a miracle. They got it, and I'm alive, and I didn't have to do any of that old nasty stuff. So there is another great reason for appreciating this period that I've been given."


The singer spent his 21st birthday in San Quentin after that famed bungled Bakersfield burglary on a Beer Can Hill restaurant.

Haggard told me in a 1996 interview he shared a cellblock but not a cell with infamous Red Light Bandit kidnapper-murderer Carryl Chessman who was executed on May 2, 1960.

That was his reward for bad timing.

After swilling red wine, Haggard took a crowbar to the restaurant's back screen door and was prying a lock when the proprietor said, "Why don't you boys just come around to the front door like everybody else?"

"What we hadn't realised is that it wasn't three a.m. at all," Haggard wrote in his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. "Hell, it was barely 10 and the place was still open with several customers inside. Drunk as I was, I figured right away we'd made a slight miscalculation."


Leona Hobbs (1956 - 1964) - (divorced) four children - Dana, Marty, Kelli and Noel.
Bonnie Owens (28 January 1968 - 1978 - divorced)
Leona Williams (7 October 1978 - 1983 - divorced)
Debbie Parret (1 June 1985 - 1991 - divorced)
Theresa Ann Lane (11 September 1993 - present) - two children Jenessa and Ben.

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