The first post on CMT’s message board reads: “I just saw Merle Haggard on Fox News discussing his new song…which is anti-Iraq war and will give great aid and comfort to the Sadamites who are killing our troops every day.”
And so it began.
Controversy sells. Or at least secures airtime. “I’m totally happy with what’s gone down so far,” Haggard says, over the phone from his office in Northern California. “I’ve had twelve television major news anchor kind of people ask me to come on: Letterman, Leno, every show that matters wants me, and television is powerful.”
Why should the political views of a 67-year-old country singer be newsworthy? It was more than a little disconcerting to see Hag displayed in the same context with images of dead Americans in Iraq, shots of bombed buses in Israel, Scott Peterson and his attorneys looking like emotionless droids, and hourly reports on the status of Ben and J-Lo’s wedding plans.
“Maybe I’m a media critic,” Haggard suggests mildly. “With music. But I’m in the business of information myself, and I’m a poet and a singer and I have a platform to sing from. I think sometimes it’s necessary to write certain songs. I think that song ['That's The News'] was necessary, and I’m really glad that it’s causing the controversy it’s caused.”
Haggard’s new single is a fairly mild rebuke, even by today’s standards. In conversation, his criticisms become substantially more pointed.
“I’m trying to say, ‘This is me now,’” he says. “I think we are living in a terrible, paranoid condition. We have troops that we should be proud of, but are we getting the straight story, do we have all the facts, or are we short of information like the President?”
He is less kind a few moments later. “You know, George Sr. calls me and wishes me a happy birthday,” he says. “Hell, I want to see George W. Bush do good. I just think he’s been disingenuous. I think if he would step up now and say, ‘OK, we’re gonna cut the crap. This is what the deal is: We want to build this pipeline from somewhere to somewhere else and there’s two assholes over there that need to be taken out anyway, and we need to be the ones to remove them, nobody else in the world can.’ I just believe that’s the honest truth and if he’d done that, all the people would rally around him and jump up and he’d be more popular than Abe Lincoln.”
(Forgetting, for the moment, that Lincoln was assassinated.)
Anyway, Haggard’s critique of President Bush seems to have as much to do with California environmental issues as with the endlessly convoluted politics of the Middle East. “The right that the President has given to cut down these big trees out here on the West Coast needs to be brought up,” he says. “He’s also given the right to drill for oil off the coast of California. Well, it’s obvious that he doesn’t give a shit about California. That happens to be where I live.
“I don’t understand how we can be so stupid to [not] realize that we have to have the lungs of the earth, the earth has to breathe. And if we do away with the trees…We have to quit burning things. We have the mentality of a firecracker, you know? We’re still in the woods lighting fires.”
In his own way, Haggard’s still lighting fires. Just when it seems safe to suggest he’s revealed himself as an evolved liberal, conversation turns to the recent flap over a granite monument to the Ten Commandments placed in the Alabama Supreme Court.
“I called my booking agent and asked if we could go down there and set up and play on the steps of that Alabama courthouse,” he says. “Or do something in defense of the Ten Commandments. It didn’t work out where we could do anything; they moved them back and hid them someplace before we could get it together. But that’s a terrible infringement on American rights, I believe.”
But it’s the song “Yellow Ribbons” on his new album that properly sets the pot boiling. Ostensibly an ode to a longstanding tradition (“There used to be a time when soldiers went to war and folks at home would tie yellow ribbons everywhere,” he states matter-of-factly in the liner notes), it’s hard not to wonder whether Haggard has another meaning in mind when he sings, “Go tie a yellow ribbon in your hair/So folks around the world will know you really care.”
His explanation doesn’t settle the matter. “It’s just part of my intention to let people know for sure that I haven’t changed my views about the red, white, and blue,” he says. “There again, were we being given all the information? But while we wait and wonder, we have a patriotic duty to the soldiers, and to the people engaged in war.”
Ah, but aren’t you being a little cynical, a little sarcastic in that song?
“I can’t, with all honesty, say that you might be a little bit right,” he acknowledges. “You know, ‘God bless America for doing what we dare’ is [the line] you’re talking about. I’m holding my breath, as I think every conscious American should be, on what is our next move, what do we do in the global community, how do we regain our stature? How do we get 150 countries to quit hating us?”