Willie Nelson & Merle Haggard: Outlaws, Legends and Friends

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Listen to Paste’s full collection of Merle Haggard live tracks in the Paste Cloud here.

“Everybody wants to be wilder than it’s accepted to be,” Merle Haggard, raggedy growl tempered with warmth, says without ceremony. “They wanna do and be more than people think is right. You know that saying ‘Well behaved women seldom make history’? It’s not just for women, you know.”

It’s afternoon in Lake Shasta, Calif., and Haggard has been kept twice as long by reporters as he was supposed to be. But the cantankerous legend is in a joyous mood, and he’s willing to ponder his reputation in light of Django & Jimmie, his duo project with Willie Nelson that hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums and No. 7 on the Top 200 Albums charts.

“Well-behaved men?” asks Haggard incredulously. “Never been around ’em. Step out of line, you’ll be remembered because you stood out! Though as old as I am, it’s hard to step anywhere, let alone out.”

Haggard laughs a dust cloud of red dirt, hard life and light. It rolls down the phone line like a tumble weed. Cagey even at 78, he’s not beyond a joke, even if it’s on him.

Of course, he and Nelson weren’t afraid to mix it up a little, leveraging their elder status to drop “It’s All Going To Pot” back in April. The song, as much social commentary as an endorsement of smoking dope over other highs, is a frolic that uses common sense and humor to make points beyond the obvious.

“That’s one of those [songs] you just know people are going to love,” Nelson says with a chuckle from his bus somewhere in Idaho a few weeks later. “I’m surprised how fast medical marijuana is going, and decriminalization…People are figuring out it isn’t going away, I guess.

“Plus there’s a whole lot of money those bottom-liners can pick up, and that works for some people. Colorado’s doing very well and showing the rest of the country how this can go. Other parts of the world are more evolved and handle it, like Israel and Copenhagen…Here we’re a little dumber, a little more redneck in our attitudes. There are medical benefits, everything else.”

Haggard, more hardcore honky tonk to Nelson’s zen country, is even more direct: “I like the insinuation of giving up pills and giving up whiskey, that stuff. The financial aspects of the alcohol industry, the Valium and Diazepam people, that’s big business. But Grandma doesn’t get whipped and the little girl doesn’t get molested when people are high.

“And now that people are seeing the industrial reality? The monetary implications are immense.”

But beyond the clever Buddy Cannon/Shawn Camp/Jamey Johnson song, there’s much more to their collaborating. Having recorded five albums together over 50 years, including 1983’s No. 1 Pancho & Lefty, they tap a vein of creativity that brings out the best in each other. On Django & Jimmie, each covers one of the other’s classics: Haggard does “Family Bible” and Nelson roadhouses “Swinging Doors,” as well as a freewheeling take on Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

“There are things that don’t get considered on our own,” Haggard explains. “We’re both writers and we have an excellent understanding of great songs, so when you bring us together, our focus isn’t on who wrote it, but what’s there and how does it work? Like a love song? We can sing it together. It’s about her, the woman you love, which is different than to her.”

Nelson concurs. “There’s a creative thing that happens. When you can do something with another person [like Haggard], something comes from that creative energy. It’s pretty simple like that: two people can make more music than one!”

And for all the classics and covers, it is the new songs like “Wilder,” “Where Dreams Go To Die” and “Unfair Weather Friend” that show both icons firing at the top of their creative game. The LP also captures the essence of the Man in Black in “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash” with guest vocals from Bobby Bare, Nelson’s shufflin’ blues on “It’s Only Money,” and the crux of Haggard and Nelson’s relationship on “The Only Man Wilder Than Me.”

Culling some of Nashville’s best players, employing Nelson’s longtime producer Buddy Cannon, and setting up in Austin, the pair decided to have fun and savor the songs. Though there are no plans for the future, they’re enjoying the moment just fine.

“I write a little bit every day,” Nelson says. “It may not be any good, but I write and I get it out. When there’s something to write I try to put it down…and it feels good.

“Here we are with a No. 1 record, and that’s inspiring. The idea people want to hear what you have to say. Especially since we’re not getting any AM or FM airplay, really. I wanna enjoy this one for a little bit, just enjoy it without moving on to the next thing.”

Additionally, Haggard offers, “I’d like to leave a legacy of something. I can picture the music in my heart…I think it’ll keep my legacy alive. You look at Gene Autrey and Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills and Ernest Tubb, those people playing dance halls when America was still really alive, that lasts.

“Willie and I both started playing music and got our first jobs trying to be guitar players, not singers, not songwriters, not stars. So people like Django and Roy Nichols were important to us both. We chased the same heroes and it shows. It’s why it’s the perfect title song for the album.”

In the end, the music still matters to them—mixing it up with good players, taking their songs out on the road. Nelson acknowledges the power and the draw of what both men are known for.

“I think it keeps you young! Something that makes you sing along, clap your hands and jump up and down? Nothing else does that, and when you’re doing that, you’re feeling alive.”

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