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Being Merle Haggard, a journalist once wrote, has never looked or sounded like a lot of fun.

The lines in Haggard's face speak of hard times — a mostly fatherless childhood, several years in reform school, nearly three years in a state penitentiary and three marriages that ended in divorce. The lines in Haggard's songs speak of hard times for common folks like him — blue-collar workers, farmers, railroaders, prisoners, drinkers and lovers.

"No, it never has been fun (being Merle Haggard)," Haggard, 48, said Thursday evening before he went onstage at the Carlton Celebrity Theater. "I've had a lot of peaks and valleys. The high points are great, the low points are terrible."

Right now, he's nearing another peak. He's happily married again — Debbie, his wife of only a few months, is 15 years younger than he. Smiles, which never seemed part of his public persona, don't come as reluctantly anymore. Onstage, he no longer seems so lonesome, ornery and mean. And the music on his new album, "A Friend in California," is livelier and jazzier than any of his recent albums, which have been overwhelmingly introspective and often morose.

"I guess I got over a divorce," he said matter of factly. "Those songs on the new album have been two years in the making. It's hard to write about happy things if you're not happy, (what) with music being an expression of the soul."

Haggard talks softly, and his voice is low and mostly monochromatic. His statements tend to be laconic, but when he warms to a subject, a slight smile creeps across his creased face, his brow furrows with a look of wisdom and those blue eyes that have seen enough for three lifetimes begin to glow. He even stops fumbling with his cigarette lighter and looks a visitor in the eye instead of staring out the window of his touring bus.

It's one of those customized, heavy-on-the-wood-interior buses on which country-music stars spend almost every waking and sleeping hour when they are not performing onstage or in the recording studio. This slight man with the receding hairline, tinted glasses and "Miami Vice" stubble looks as at home in this vehicle as a pig in the mud. Yet with his black leather jacket, knit scarf around the neck and stylized cowboy boots, he might pass for a Minnesotan trying to combat the blustery winter.

It was only recently, Haggard said, that he realized that most of his songs were downbeat in content and tone. He's not sure what sparked the discovery, but because of its impact on his new album, he said he has never been happier with a record. "I don't think people want to feel bad," he said. "There's enough depression in the world without me adding to it."

Not that Haggard is complaining about his other records. He has made a career out of singing the blues. Actually, it's been the thinking man's blues. He's been called the poet of the common man, and rightfully so. His songs aren't soap operas but portraits of everyday life with an uncommon depth of feeling, genuine emotion and a sense of purpose. A good half of his 35 or so No. 1 country hits could be considered classics: "Mama Tried," "Fightin' Side of Me," "Working Man Blues," "Today I Started Loving You Again," "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink'' and "Are the Good Times Really Over for Good," to name a few.

The inspirations for his work, he said, usually come from women.

That's why he's singing "I Had a Beautiful Time," "This Time I Really Do" and "Thank You for Keeping My House" on his new album. But not only is his domestic life looking up, so is his musical family. He points to a new face in his longtime band, the Strangers: guitarist Clint Strong, 20, from Arlington, Texas. Haggard calls him a professor because the newcomer is knowledgeable and fluent in all guitar styles from rock to bluegrass.

"He's been a shot in the arm to every guy in the band," said Haggard, whose veteran group is undoubtedly the most skillful, versatile, organic and economic ensemble working the country-music circuit. "Everybody in the band is having to work to use everything they ever learned to not look bad."

Not that Haggard and his Strangers needed a boost. No country group can match the Strangers' musicality. And no contemporary country singer-songwriter has created a body of work with the soulfulness and insight of Haggard's. He may not sell as many records as Willie Nelson, he may not be as flashy and friendly of an entertainer as Ricky Skaggs, or he may not be as revered by the masses as Johnny Cash is or by his peers as George Jones is, but, as Esquire magazine eloquently put it a few years ago, "No one is better than Haggard at capturing in metaphor the bleary-eyed angst and dark revelations of the soul that lie beyond the second six-pack."

After Haggard's father died when he was 9, the youngster began to run away from home in Bakersfield, Calif., hitchhiking and hopping freight trains. His restless ramblings led to trouble and six years in and out of reform school. He cracked a safe, stole a car and one night he and some friends were so drunk that they robbed a tavern while it was still open even though they thought it was past closing time.

Thus, at age 20, Haggard found himself doing an undetermined sentence of six-months to 15 years at San Quentin State Penitentiary. There he heard Cash sing and, when he was paroled in '60, he pursued a singing career with the help of Buck Owens. (Haggard was pardoned in '72 by Ronald Reagan, then governor of California.) In '66, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" became Haggard's first No. 1 country hit. Three years later, he rose to greater prominence with the redneck anthem, "Okie from Muskogee."

Since then, Haggard has recorded albums featuring gospel, Western swing, Dixieland and blues. He has recorded tributes to his heros — Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell — and duet LPs with Jones and Nelson (another Nelson duet project is scheduled to be released this year). His autobiography, "Sing Me Back Home," was published in 1981.

"I've been an example as what not to do," he said, "and also an example of what can be done in America. I think that nowhere in history that I can find has there been anyone who has taken advantage of the American system to the extreme I have. I have gone about as far as you can go in both directions. I doubt that there's any place else in the world where a man has been sent to prison and been made man of the year by the same community."

Haggard has compassion for the community his songs serve. Last year, he recorded "Amber Waves of Grain," a tribute to the American farmer, and became active in the Farm Aid concert. He tried to organize a whistle-stop "Freedom Train" from Bakersfield to Champaign, Ill., (where the concert took place) to call attention to farm problems, but the train ride was postponed because of lack of money. His attempt to reschedule a similar trip for this spring has proved fruitless, leaving him $47,000 in debt to Amtrak.

Haggard said he sympathizes with the farmers, whose mortgages are being foreclosed, just as he sympathizes with small-businessmen like himself who are enduring tough times. He's in debt to the IRS for a couple of million dollars, which forces him to keep a rigorous schedule of concerts around the country. Moreover, rambling fever and playing music are simply in his blood.

"It's a necessity to be on the road," he said, "because to have a great ball team, you must play ball. To take players like I got on the payroll and let them get stale would be a sin."

It's also because Haggard is obsessed with music. He describes himself as a student — a student of music, philosophy and communication. He can discuss the guitar work of jazzman Howard Roberts, the hereafter or the spellbinding speaking style of Garner Ted Armstrong of the Worldwide Church of God with equal enthusiasm and authority. He is driven, he said, by a desire to play the guitar, to have a total knowledge of the instrument.

Haggard may appear introverted and insecure at times, yet he aspires to be "the first country artist that's accepted in all fields with respect." He was elated when he was pictured on the cover of Downbeat, the prestigious jazz magazine. And he's flattered, too, when such rockers as the Grateful Dead record his songs.

Haggard already has earned his place in music history. His music will live on via a tape of

his songs in a container on the moon and another in a time capsule on Earth that won't be opened for hundreds of years. On a more mundane level, he is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records and in various encyclopedias. Those reference books describe him, he said, as a country singer, balladeer, composer of "Okie from Muskogee" and "the poet of the common man." But that's not how Haggard hopes the world remembers him.

"I'd like it to say: `He was the greatest jazz guitar player in the world that loved to play country."'

Then he smiled and laughed to himself. And finally being Merle Haggard looked and sounded like a lot of fun.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719