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Merle Haggard on Barack Obama

January 23, 2009 |  3:33 pm

Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Haggard was among the millions who tuned in Tuesday to witness the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president.

Unlike most everyone else who got caught up in the pageantry, Haggard was sufficiently inspired to step into his home recording studio and lay down a new song reflecting his feelings about the day, which he played for me in demo form Wednesday when I met with him at his house outside Redding, Calif. (A full profile of Haggard is coming in Calendar next week.)

It’s called “Hopes Are High,” and even though Haggard says he didn’t vote for Obama, the song celebrates the arrival of a new era for the country in exceedingly optimistic tones.

We got a new style with a sincere smile

And a new song to sing along

Cause there’s sunshine and a blue sky

And hopes are high

“I don’t remember any politician ever getting that much reaction,” Haggard, 71, said. “And I will say this: Even before Hillary Clinton was eliminated from the primaries, the first time I saw Barack on stage, I told my wife, he’s the only one that steps up to the mike and looks like a president."

“The rest of 'em just didn’t have the stage presence for it,” the composer of “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” said. “You gotta be somewhat of an entertainer to be president of the United States and pull it off correctly, which is what made Ronald Reagan such a master of the game.”

“I heard Bill Clinton talking the other night, you might have seen the interview with Elvis Costello,” he said, referring to the Sundance Channel’s new music-interview show “Spectacle,” hosted by the British rocker. “He was talking about how much music had influenced his life, and how much he couldn’t have done without it. I was impressed with that. He understood improvisation, he understood jazz, and he said without that knowledge he couldn’t have pulled it off. He was really right about all those things.”

--Randy Lewis

Photo by Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times