Here’s what most people know about Merle Haggard, who’s scheduled to perform on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at the Tivoli Theatre. Back in the late 1960s, he released “Okie from Muskogee” and followed it up in the next year with the equally virulent “Fightin’ Side of Me,” the kind of flag-waving paean to “our fightin’ men” currently favored by Toby Keith and other Nashville reactionaries.
But a year before Haggard, now 75, was a darling of the rock counter-culture. “Country music is blowing in like a fresh wind from the West,” proclaimed an enthusiastic piece in Rolling Stone in the summer of 1968. Haggard is quoted in the article saying that his music is “American music.”
The problem in those days—as today—was that “America” was a deeply divided country. The contemporary culture wars are rooted in the late ’60s when many young people were tuning in, turning on and dropping out. Haggard, who came of age in the early 1950s, had done his share of dropping out. And while he wasn’t unsympathetic to the counter-culture, he was mystified by the music. “I can understand … like one song played with that mood,” he said after a visit to San Francisco in 1968, “but they play that like it’s a six-hour shift.”
Haggard wasn’t alone in this sentiment. By the summer of 1969 even The Grateful Dead was returning to its country roots. Influenced by Gram Parsons (a big Hag fan), The Byrds, followed by The Flying Burrito Brothers and the Rolling Stones, began playing like Haggard and his edgy little band of Bakersfield bad boys, The Strangers.
But rock ‘n’ roll’s relationship with country music was always fraught with suspicion on both sides, so when Haggard released “Okie from Muskogee” in 1969, his honeymoon with the rockers soured. “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD,” sang Haggard. “We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.” In that last line audiences will find the essence of an argument that’s still raging today across the U.S.
After “Okie,” Haggard became identified with Nixon’s “silent majority” and it wasn’t until Waylon and Willie began calling themselves outlaws several years later that the music Haggard characterized as “American music” again reached beyond hardcore country fans. The irony is that Haggard, an authentic outlaw when he was younger and always a fiercely independent thinker, had at least as much in common with the rock ‘n’ roll audience as Nelson and Jennings.
But unlike those slightly self-conscious outlaws, Haggard was haunted by the reckless teenage behavior that had landed him in juvenile detention centers and finally in San Quentin for three years before he was 21. Following his first few hits in the mid-1960s, he worried that when his criminal record became common knowledge he’d lose his audience. But rather than try to hide it, he addressed his past in songs like “Branded Man.” “I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am,” he sang, “But they won’t let my secret go untold/I paid the debt I owed ’em, but they’re still not satisfied.” It went to No. 1 one on the country charts.
His persona as outlaw-patriot, an irreconcilable combination, fueled his songs (wrestling with his conflicted feelings) during his most prolific and successful period as a writer and performer.
Between 1967 and 1977 Haggard charted 37 Top 10 hits, 23 of which reached No. 1 on the country music charts. Only one ever made it onto the pop charts, but as that writer in Rolling Stone noted in 1968, Haggard’s records would’ve been equally successful on the pop charts if “the big city radio stations would only play (them).”
But they didn’t. And as a result many people only knew him as the (apparently) ultra-conservative redneck behind “Okie From Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Unlike Toby Keith and his ilk, Haggard was always a reasonable man willing to see both sides: “I don’t mind ‘em switchin’ sides/And standing up for what they believe in/When they’re runnin’ down my country, man/They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
In 2007, he not only endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, but wrote a song for her—prompting Time Magazine to publish an article entitled, “Does Merle Haggard Speak for America?” He accepted a lifetime achievement award for his “outstanding contribution to American culture” from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2010 and was celebrated by a who’s who of his contemporaries and disciples including Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Kid Rock and Brad Paisley. Last year, Haggard endorsed President Obama for reelection. So much for labels.
A contradictory man whose life is outlined in his songs, Haggard and his band were making music on the border between country and rock almost a decade before Waylon Jennings. A huge influence on a generation of rockers including Tom Petty and Elvis Costello, his songs often amble at an easy pace until either James Burton jumps in with one of those chicken-pickin’ guitar breaks he developed while playing with Haggard in the mid-60’s or Norman Hamlett takes off on his pedal steel. When those guys kick in, his songs rock as hard as Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris or Waylon in their prime.
Listen to Hamlett’s fiery, stinging solos in dozens of Hag’s hits including “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Running Kind” and “Honky Tonk Night Time Man.” As gritty and soulful as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Haggard should long ago have been playing for a much wider audience. These days he is (and Hamlett’s still playing with him). Catch him while you can.
Wednesday, Feb. 13 • 7:30 p.m. • Tivoli Theatre • 709 Broad St. • (423) 642-8497 •
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.