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.