It was 45 years ago today that Merle Haggard recorded his classic pro-military (and anti-protestors) tune, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” The song was to serve as the follow-up single to the similarly patriotic “Okie From Muskogee,” which had, just a few months earlier, catapulted the singer to country mega-stardom. The story of this 1969 song progression is one of the most illuminating tales of the legend’s career.
Hoping to distance himself from the harshly right-wing image he had accrued in the wake of the hippie-bashing “Muskogee,” Haggard wanted to take a different direction and release “Irma Jackson” as his next single. A catchy, uptempo number that ran at just under two and a half minutes, “Irma Jackson” was a perfect choice apart from one reason: its subject matter. It was the tale of an interracial love affair — a progressive, topical narrative that protested intolerance and expressed extreme frustration with the type of down-home, traditionally-minded community that Haggard was perceived to be celebrating in “Okie from Muskogee.” “There’s no way the world will understand that love is colorblind,” Haggard sings, denouncing the injustices of bigotry.
When the Bakersfield, California native brought the song to his record label, executives were reportedly appalled. In the wake of “Okie,” Capitol Records was not interested in complicating Haggard’s conservative, blue-collar image. In a 2001 interview, the musician singles out this moment as the one time Ken Nelson, head of the country music division of Capitol at the time, “interfered” with his music. “He came out and said, ‘Merle, I don’t believe the world is ready for this yet,'” Haggard recalls, as printed in the 2013 book Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, by David Cantwell. Over the years, the singer has always been more than willing to express disappointment over the controversy: “People are narrow-minded,” he once told the Wall Street Journal. “Down South, they might have called me a nigger lover. I guess the world isn’t ready for that song yet.”
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Instead, the label encouraged their prized singer to record “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Haggard’s jingoistic, irreverent anthem that lined up much more closely to his new post-“Okie” branding. With its harsh dismissal of anyone criticizing the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the song solidified the singer’s small-town, right-winged image and went on to become one of the biggest hits of his career.