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.