What's the best advice you've gotten?
My father hated a liar. He died when I was nine, but if I learned anything from him, I learned that.
What was it like growing up poor?
I grew up in a family that didn't have anything. We all worked, so we never went hungry, but there was never too much. I wanted to better myself, but I took off in the wrong direction. When I woke up in San Quentin, I was about 21, and I realized how far I'd gone in the wrong direction.
What did prison teach you?
Honesty. In that environment, if you tell someone you're gonna do something on a Tuesday, you better do it, because you can't get away from them.
What have you learned about dealing with the law?
I believe that if you break the law and get caught, you should go to jail. But we're in a hard time in America now, with all the trouble with police in the cities. Prison is the biggest business in America. Bigger than marijuana! You got the money, you can build a prison out in Nevada and it'll be filled before you finish building it. That's a fact, and that's a shame.
On the new record, there's a song, "Missing Ol' Johnny Cash." What did his friendship mean to you?
Johnny Cash was a special friend to me. We understood each other — we had the same upbringing, the same sense of humor. One time we were doing a television show and he was talking about playing San Quentin in 1958, and I said, "You didn't have a voice that day, Cash!" And he turned around like, "How the hell would you know?" And I said, "I was there." It blew him backwards. One time later he said to me, "Merle, you're what people think I am." "Oh, no." I said. "I've just done hard time. There's not that much difference between you and me." I really miss him.
What keeps you going on the road?
I think if I were to give it up, I'd dry out and blow away. It's great to have the audience standing up for an ovation every time I leave. It's hard to walk away from that.
Do you still get as excited on the stage?
It's still a thrill, still exciting, and still scary. It's physically demanding. And at my age, 78, I don't know if I can stand up there 90 minutes or not. I asked my manager, "When's the last time you tried to sing for an hour?" And he said, "Hell, I can't even watch an hour!"
What advice would you give the younger you?
I'd tell him put on his seat belt. Metaphorically. Because it's gonna get rough.
So you enjoy marijuana, but some of your most famous lyrics put it down.
At the time I wrote "Okie From Muskogee," I didn't smoke. It was '68. I had been brainwashed like most of America about what marijuana would and wouldn't do. I thought it was responsible for the flower children walking around with their mouths open. It was not so. But if a guy doesn't learn anything in 50 years, there's something wrong with him. I've learned a lot about it, and America has, too.
You also cover Bob Dylan on the new record. Is that because he called you out in a speech he made at a Grammys event earlier this year?
I'm still trying to digest that. I don't know what that's all about. I always admired him, from the minute I first heard of him. Never had an ill thought about the guy. I think he's a bit paranoid. He might be smoking the wrong stuff.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I don't know. It's not over yet.