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Remembering Merle Haggard, legendary outlaw and politically-incorrect progressive

Ebet Roberts

One day Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash were reminiscing about Cash’s first prison concert at San Quentin in 1958. When Haggard told Cash he enjoyed the show, Cash said he couldn’t remember him being on the bill that day.

Haggard replied, “I was in the audience, Johnny."

Merle Haggard was about as country as it gets. He grew up in a home made from a boxcar with a father who toiled on California’s cotton farms during the 1940s. At age 20, after a conviction for armed robbery, Merle was transferred to San Quentin prison when he botched an escape attempt from Bakersfield Jail.

While in San Quentin he started an illegal brewing operation and subsequently spent seven days in solitary confinement. This experience led Haggard to be “scared straight.” He went on to be one of the most prolific singers and songwriters in the history of country music.

Yesterday, Merle passed away surrounded by family and friends on his tour bus, where he had asked to spend his final days.

In today’s world of Top 40 country it’s all too common to hear music that is essentially hair metal with a fiddle player, and lyrical content that is uncompromisingly dominated by the words “truck, beer, jeans, moonlight, and girl.”

Merle was the real deal, but to be fair he embraced his fair share country clichés. If you took a typical album of his, it may go something like this:

A song about prison.
A song about truck driving.
A song about prison.
A song about heartbreak.
A song about drinking.
A song about lovin’.
Another song about prison.

However, Haggard had a more nuanced type of working-man redneck ethos than one might normally associate with a country singer. Take his most famous song, “Okie From Muskogee”, which was perceived as an anti-counterculture anthem in the Vietnam era.

Singing about his father’s hometown, Haggard claimed:

“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don’t take no trips on LSD
We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin’ right and bein’ free.”

While personal interpretations of the song are always up for debate, Haggard has maintained through the years that Okie is a satirical look at the radically divided America that existed during the 1960s.

While conservative values such as the rejection of welfare in favor of self-sufficiency were common themes in his songs, his worldview still included a special empathy for the working class, abused, and otherwise downtrodden. Especially prisoners.

One of his most personal tunes, “Sing Me Back Home”, is a painful recollection of his experience singing a last request for a fellow San Quentin inmate during their walk down death row. “Branded Man” embodies the difficulty ex-convicts face trying to reintegrate into society after being released from prison.

Other songs that Haggard wrote were so outside the accepted realm of country music that his labels refused to release them. After the success of “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969 Haggard wanted to release “Irma Jackson”, a love song denouncing the racism that made interracial marriages taboo in the US.

Capitol Records wanted to maintain Haggard’s conservative image, and made him release the nationalistic romper “The Fightin’ Side of Me” instead. "Irma Jackson" was put out later as a deep cut on the 1972 album Let Me Tell You About A Song

As the years rolled on, Haggard continued to tell it like he saw it, rough edges and all. In 1978 he wrote the woefully stereotypical, but still poignant “The Immigrant.” In it, he admires Mexican immigrants who come to the US to work while lambasting the racists who use foreign labor while it's convenient and then call for the deportation of those same immigrants “until they need them again.”

In 2005 Merle penned what is perhaps the only song about prioritizing infrastructure spending in US. Despite the fact that it shares the same name as the paleoconservative political party, the song titled “America First” challenges the then George W. Bush administration to leave Iraq, abandon jingoism, and address the “highways and bridges fallin’ apart.”

Whether he was bashing hippies, calling out racism, praising soldiers, or protesting war, Merle Haggard always held his ground as one of country music's true independent voices. The heartfelt style and wry wit that Merle brought to his music will be sorely missed.

But rest assured, wherever he is now, he’s rolling one up in anticipation of Willie’s arrival.