It would be churlish, especially in the wake of his passing, to suggest Merle Haggard helped to envision and enable the combative, disaffected constituency that Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has so rudely exploited. But it wouldn’t be entirely untrue.
However, Mr. Trump is no Merle Haggard and his message diverges severely — even at the working class poet’s Vietnam-era, hippie-baitin’, fightin’-side feistiest. Plus, Hag was a Hillary Clinton supporter, dating back to 2007. He even wrote a song for her, proclaiming, “Let’s put a woman in charge.” He also wrote an inaugural song for Barack Obama called “Hopes Are High,” though he later became disenchanted with Obama’s economic policy. And he loved Ronald Reagan, partially because the then-California governed expunged his youthful criminal record in 1972.
All of which is to say that you could keel over from vertigo trying to push-pin Haggard’s ideology, mainly because he didn’t have one. As he zig-zagged through life, his songs consistently expressed contradictory points of view — pride, shame, empathy, bitterness — both because his thinking evolved and he didn’t care about tidy resolutions. Restless in every way, his music swerved from left to right to high as a kite to lost and broken. In the poignantly rendered “Sing Me Back Home,” Haggard takes the last request of a man on his way to the gas chamber and makes us all feel diminished.
Over the course of two years, Haggard released two songs — the 1969 pop-crossover “Okie From Muskogee,” a wiseass protest smackdown of anti-war protestors and 1970’s joyous bully-boy romp “The Fightin’ Side of Me” — that would both bless and curse his career. Though “Okie” made him rich and famous and turned Richard Nixon into his Number One fanboy, Haggard was no “Okie,” a slur tossed at poor Dust Bowl refugees during the 1930s. He was channeling his dad, who migrated from Oklahoma to the hardscrabble town of Oildale outside Bakersfield, California. At times, Haggard claimed the song was a satire of the salty point of view that had taken hold amongst his father’s generation, men and women who had desperately chased after jobs to survive and resented what they saw as layabout, whiny, stoned hippies. And with its jokey, sloganeering, sing-along lyrics, it sounds like it might’ve been cobbled together on the bus by a handful of musicians after many beers (which is how Haggard has implied it was written; drummer Roy Edward Burris does get a songwriting credit). Like the so-called gangsta rappers who came long after him, Hag contended that he was simply playing a provocative character. And like Ice-T and Ice Cube and 2Pac, he became a villain and cause célèbre for his militantly stylized portrayal.
For his audiences, “Okie” was the love-it-or-leave-it, true-blue screw-you anthem they never could’ve imagined. At least in pop culture, it awakened what become known as “the Silent Majority,” and codified country music’s us-against-them stance. The song became yet another symbol of the post-Civil Rights struggle, as whites were pitted against blacks and college-educated lefty youth by bewildered, hidebound federal officials seeking to consolidate power and find scapegoats for the country’s economic and wartime troubles. In the Sixties and Seventies, politicians like Nixon and George Wallace followed the lead of the 1948 segregationist Dixiecrat Party (helmed by Strom Thurmond) and developed the “Southern Strategy,” exploiting poor and working-class whites’ very real belief that they were unheard and ignored. Instead of jobs or a shared sense of purpose or self-respect, they got racist, fear-mongering, faux-patriotic rhetoric. Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” hit at the perfect time to reflect this pitched unease.
Haggard told the author RJ Smith in 2000: “I don’t feel now the way I did when I wrote ‘Okie from Muskogee.’ I still sing it because it describes a period of time. I write from common knowledge, current knowledge, collective intelligence. At the time I wrote that song, I was just about as intelligent as the American public was. And they was about as dumb as a rock. About Vietnam, about marijuana, and other things. When you get older, you find that things you were absolutely, positively sure about, you didn’t know nothin’ about.”
Haggard lost his father when he was nine years old, and ran wild afterwards, as his single mother worked long hours to support the family. He was sent to a juvenile home at 14 and ended up in prison for two years in his twenties. He never read much, but listened widely. His songs were stubborn readings of his own conflicting moods and America’s conflicted history. What initially burned him about “Okie from Muskogee” was how his fans took it to a specific extreme that he never intended; but even more so, he hated how it backed him into a corner as the Poet Laureate of Pissed-Off White People. For a man who hated being pigeonholed perhaps more than anything else, the fact that he’d pigeonholed himself was a grand, debilitating irony. He wrote countless masterful songs; but this one stuck.
So why did he double down on “Okie” with the punchy “Fightin’ Side of Me,” basically fanning the F-you flames? The story goes that Haggard wanted to follow up “Okie” with his song “Irma Jackson,” a tender account of an interracial couple whose romance is doomed because of racist, small minds. His record company demurred and released “Fightin’ Side” instead. Sales soared, as did his booking prices. Hag kept moving.
Later, he released “Irma Jackson,” as well as “Big Time Annie’s Square,” a nuanced story in which the singer accepts the counterculture lifestyle of a girl he meets after she moves away from his hometown; and “The Farmer’s Daughter,” in which he sings as the non-judgmental, supportive father of a woman who is marrying a longhaired “city boy.” He wrote hundreds of songs, some dumb as a rock, many, many more chillingly insightful about the everyday futility that we all feel, and the dignity that comes from pushing forward without phony escapism or denigration of the next man.
Merle Haggard was far more than the sum of his flawed parts. And in the multitude of songs he left behind, you can hear exactly why. His strength came from admitting he was wrong, purging his shame, and getting back in the game, chin up. In the book Rednecks and Bluenecks, a history of politics in country music, author Chris Willman quotes Haggard naming his “top three assholes of all time”: Hitler, Nixon and George W. Bush. I don’t know where he would’ve listed Trump, but I suspect he would’ve first acknowledged that the frustrations felt by Trump’s supporters were real, and that he empathized with them. It was his life’s work, after all.