Merle Haggard is country music, or at least half of it. For more than 50 years, he’s been a general in the perpetual battle between country’s traditional roots and Nashville’s latest gentrification program.
Whether it was Bakersfield honky-tonk, outlaw, or alt-country, Haggard’s stood for the music’s blue-collar roots, plainspoken style, and honest, direct emotion against those who’d polish the sound and load it with cliché signifiers — you know, those songs featuring a dog, beer, girls, trucks, and typically taking place on Saturday night.
Haggard’s characters are a decidedly less upbeat lot. These lonesome fugitives will tell you “a loser doesn’t always know he’s losing,” worry that they have “no reason to quit,” and plaintively ask, “Lord, don’t give up on me, I’ll do good again someday.” Sometimes they’re just pissed off, as in his famous “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” but mostly they’re just flawed people trying to find or maintain their way.
“I sometimes feel like I’m standing up for the people that don’t have the nerve to stand up for themselves,” Haggard said in a 2005 GQ interview. “I just enjoyed winning for the loser. I’d never been around anything except losers my whole life.”
For the first part of his life Haggard was one of them. Haggard’s father died when he was only eight, and that unleashed the boy’s rambunctious, rebellious nature. He stopped hopping the rails, and became a juvenile delinquent, starting a slow slide into petty crime.
After continually escaping his various confinements 17 times, Haggard eventually wound up in San Quentin. The prison experience itself turned into an earnest desire by Haggard to turn his life around.
When he got out, Haggard dug ditches while pursuing music around Bakersfield. Thanks to Buck Owens, it had become a hub for a style of country music that developed in reaction to the over-produced sound coming out of Nashville. (Sound familiar?) Haggard fell into this scene, and after a few years scored a hit with a 1964 cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song.” He’d score two more hits with Liz Anderson songs, “(My Friends Are Going to Be) Strangers” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” Two years later he would release the pivotal, “Okie from Muskogee,” which quickly became an anthem for small-town Americans afraid of the direction their country was taking.
The song is quintessential Haggard inasmuch as it speaks honestly and passionately from the mouth of a character who springs to life in his voice, and who shares a lot of similarity with the singer. He’s said it’s a picture of his father. Haggard’s said he almost immediately regretted releasing “Okie” as a single, and then compounded the error by releasing “Fightin’ Side of Me” rather than his first choice, “Irma Jackson,” a sensitive song about an interracial romance. When “Fightin'” became a hit and George Wallace asked Haggard for his endorsement (which he declined), the country singer became synonymous with white Southern conservatives, cutting him off from an entire segment of music lovers.
Not that it mattered too greatly. Haggard was one of country’s biggest hitmakers from the late ’60s through the early ’80s. But when Garth Brooks arrived, country music gave Haggard the heave-ho. After a bad run in the ’90s, he bounced back in 2000 with his comeback, If I Could Fly, and his fortunes have been on the upswing ever since. Though he’s not topping the charts anymore, his eight post-millennial albums have all hit the midsection of the Billboard Top 100 Country Albums.
It’s been a couple years since his last two albums, 2010’s I Am What I Am and 2011’s Working in Tennessee, which are sometimes heavy with thoughts of mortality, but the fire still burns on tracks like “What I Hate,” which assails political rhetoric, racism, loss of freedom, and indifference.
He’s certainly come a long way from Muskogee. As he told the blog Rock Cellar this summer, “I know I’m not getting any younger, but I’m always trying to write something. And I’m always hoping this next song will be the one that I was born to write.”