Earlier today, I wished Merle Haggard a happy birthday on my Twitter feed.
An hour later, I found out that he died on his birthday. Haggard had just turned 79.
I knew that Haggard been having health problems. In December, he had to abruptly cancel his concert schedule when he came down with double pneumonia. Haggard briefly returned to the road in February, but his health problems returned and doctors ordered him to rest.
Aside from Buck Owens, no artist was more instrumental in developing The Bakersfield Sound in country music. In reality, The Bakersfield sound was rooted in Dust Bowl states like Arkansas, Texas and especially Oklahoma where Haggard’s parents hailed and made their way to California during The Great Depression. The Bakersfield Sound was far more raw and had a tinge of rock ‘n roll in contrast to the country music being recorded in Nashville during the late ’50’s and early ’60’s. Haggard, Owens and other Bakersfield Sound artists would influence the Outlaw Country movement of the 1970’s.
However, during his teens, it seemed that Haggard was destined for a life of crime after a number of run ins with the law mostly shoplifting and writing bad checks. After trying to escape from a local jail following a robbery, Haggard found himself in San Quentin Prison. After a stint in solitary confinement and the execution of another prisoner with whom he had planned to escape, Haggard turned around and became a model prisoner and was inspired to join the prison’s country music band after hearing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin. (In 1969, Cash would record his famous live album At San Quentin.) Ronald Reagan would grant Haggard a full pardon in 1972.
Haggard would be at the height of his success in late 1969 and early 1970 with his biggest hit “Okie From Muskogee”, an anti-counterculture anthem. Although Haggard himself would later suggest there was an element of parody in it, lyrics like, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take no trips on LSD/We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin’ right, and bein’ free” resonated with the silent majority. Despite Haggard’s political stance, his music was not verboten among countercultural figures. Parody songs like The Youngbloods’ “Hippie From Olema #5” and even Chinga Chavin’s “Asshole From El Paso” (also covered by Kinky Friedman but either way NSFW) were written as much out of affection rather than anger at Haggard. Joan Baez would record two of Haggard’s songs – “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried”.
Haggard would follow up “Okie” with “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, a pro-Vietnam war song which popularized the term “Love It or Leave It.” Ironically, more than three decades later, Haggard would record “America First”, a protest song against the War in Iraq. Haggard would enjoy a renaissance during the 2000’s and would be the subject of an American Masters documentary on PBS in 2010. His Okie from Muskogee album is to be included in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series in 2018. Last month, “Mama Tried” was added to The Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
All these accolades notwithstanding, there is no simply other way to leave you, but to wave Old Glory from the courthouse one more time with Merle Haggard performing “Okie From Muskogee”.