If there were a country music Mount Rushmore, Merle Haggard's face would be etched in the edifice.
The legendary singer-songwriter is arguably the closest musical figure to the iconic Hank Williams, with apologies to Willie Nelson.
Haggard, 75, is a true musical maverick, who dominated the country charts from the late '60s through the early '70s with such classics as "Okie From Muskogee," "Hungry Eyes," and "I Threw Away the Rose."
He has hit the top of the country charts 38 times, the last being 1987's "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."
"It's nice to have some songs that connected with fans, not just back then but songs fans want to hear now," Haggard said. "It's nice when you have a song that stands up to the test of time. I think I have a few of those. But the bottom line is that I'm fortunate enough that I get to play country music. I've always been about country music."
That's the style of music it's been for Haggard ever since he was coming of age during the '50s.
"So much has to do with where I grew up," Haggard explained during a call from his California home. "I grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., and it was a lot like Texas in a way. We had oil and country music. I always loved country music. I got hooked on guys like Bob Wills, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. There was nobody else like those guys."
The icon, affectionately known as "The Hag," added an edginess to country. "Maybe that had to do with me playing rock 'n' roll in bars," Haggard said. "I had to play Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry songs when I performed during the early days. That may have had an impact on me, but maybe it's also because I like it harder."
Haggard, who will perform Friday at the Mahaffey Theater, is one of music's most influential figures. He has been covered by the Grateful Dead, Pure Prairie League and Joan Baez.
He has been name-checked in song by Brooks and Dunn, Shooter Jennings and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
"All that stuff is wonderful," Haggard said. "It's great to get the kind of respect I've received, but ultimately I'm just glad to be around still playing my songs."
Haggard was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer in 2008. He had part of his lung removed that year and made a successful physical and musical comeback.
"I'm just thrilled that I'm healthy and I can still do what I love to do," Haggard said. "I'm going to continue to do it for as long as I can."
There's no reason to expect Haggard to slow down any time soon. He's been very productive since the turn of the century.
He kicked off the last decade with the under-heralded and Spartan "If I Could Only Fly" in 2000. The next year, The Hag followed with "Roots Vol. 1," which paid tribute to Frizzell, Williams and Hank Thompson. "I felt really good with those albums," Haggard said.
Haggard took it to another level with 2005's "Chicago Wind." The most effective cuts are patriotic. "Where's All That Freedom" and "America First" saluted soldiers and pined for the end of the Iraq war. "Let's Get Out Of Iraq And Get Back On Track," Haggard sings.
"I had some things to get off my chest," Haggard said. "Everybody in America had some thoughts about what was going on over there. The great thing about being a songwriter is that you can put your words on paper, and it can become a song."
"I Am What I Am" is his aptly titled 2010 release. The earnest, reflective songs are gritty, melancholy tunes, which are reflective and earnest. Haggard takes on Western Swing, Dixieland Jazz and delivers some pretty ballads.
It's remarkable how little Haggard has lost as the years pass.
"I take good care of myself," Haggard said. "I still have the passion for music. I still love to write, record and go on tour. What else am I going to do? I don't want to retire. That's no fun."
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Mahaffey Theater, 400 First Street South, St. Petersburg
Tickets: $89.50, $59.50, $49.50 and $39.50; (727) 892-5767 and themahaffey.com