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Merle Haggard's breathing easier now

The country music legend, 71, is up, around and touring again after a bout with lung cancer.

February 01, 2009|Randy Lewis

REDDING, CALIF. — Back in 1973, the country was in the grip of economic woes. A beleaguered Republican president was overseeing an unpopular war abroad and gradually had lost the support of the American people.

The musical response from Merle Haggard at the time was "If We Make It Through December," a sobering song that spent a month at No. 1 on the country chart and became one of the singer-songwriter's signature compositions for its compassionate look at the plight of working people across the land.

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If we make it through December / Everything's gonna be all right I know / It's the coldest time of winter / And I shiver when I see the fallin' snow

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Three and a half decades later, Haggard sits in the living room of his Northern California home on 168 rolling acres, a few bumpy, dusty miles outside of Redding. Along with the rest of the country, he's made it through another difficult December -- his 72nd -- into a new year.

His cobalt-blue eyes are trained on the widescreen TV monitor mounted on the wall across the cozy room. The Bloomberg News channel is on, and stock prices crawl relentlessly across the bottom of the screen on the day after Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States.

Most stocks, and Haggard's spirits, are up.

He confesses "I didn't vote for Obama," but can't deny the political and emotional sea change that the Illinois senator's ascension to the chief executive's office represents. "We're probably guilty of living up to the Constitution for the first time in the history of America, which is really something to say," Haggard says softly, looking a little battle-scarred in his Army-surplus jacket, black T-shirt, blue denim jeans and golden-brown ostrich boots.

Such a feeling has taken his muse in the opposite direction from the doubt he felt back in the dark days of Vietnam and Watergate. On the weekend before Obama took his oath of office, Haggard knocked out a new song called "Hopes Are High" and quickly recorded a demo version in one of the two studios he has set up at home. He points the remote in his right hand toward the audio system under the TV screen, clicks a button and his own voice comes wafting out, as light and happy as perhaps it's ever sounded:

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We've got the bad times behind us

And the good times up ahead . . .

And we've got sunshine and a new guy

And hopes are high

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Haggard has double reason to be feeling hopeful: He's just won a bout with lung cancer, and now is apparently clear of the disease after surgeons removed a lemon-size lump from his chest. He's more than ready to get back on the concert trail and will bring his celebrated band, the Strangers, back to the Southland for a performance Thursday at the Grove in Anaheim.

"I got real lucky, I tell you," says the man widely considered the greatest country songwriter since Hank Williams and one of the genre's most influential singers ever. "They got in there, they got it all, and there wasn't nothin' else in there . . . I didn't have to do no chemo, no radiation, I just had to heal up. How lucky can you get?"

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A nagging cough

Haggard didn't have a compelling reason when he decided to go in for a chest X-ray last May, just an awareness that it had been a couple of years since his last one, coupled with a nagging cough he figured he'd better look into. The X-ray revealed a lump in his right lung, a little more than an inch in diameter.

He didn't have a biopsy, but opted to wait for a while to see what happened. A few months later, it had grown, he said, so he went in for surgery in November. He chose to have the operation at Memorial Hospital in Bakersfield, near his birthplace in Oildale.

During the procedure, doctors spotted a second growth they hadn't seen on the X-ray, and removed that too. Both were cancerous -- non-small cell lung cancer, a slower-growing type than the more aggressive oat cell cancer. "I didn't realize how bad a shape I was in before the surgery," Haggard says, a simulated fire roaring in the fireplace to his right, "until just the last couple of weeks, when I got to where I could cough and sneeze without hurting."

On the mantel above the fake fire are two Grammy Awards, one for his 1984 vocal on his single "That's the Way Love Goes," the other for a multi-artist collaboration on the song "Same Old Train" in 1998. The Grammys sit below a plaque he was awarded by the Jimmie Rodgers Foundation for his contributions to upholding the "blue yodeler" tradition of Rodgers, often referred to as "the father of modern country music" and one of Haggard's heroes. A couple of DVDs documenting another of his major influences, western swing pioneer Bob Wills, occupy the lower shelf of the coffee table in front of him.

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