Let’s dispense with “Okie”, shall we? Everybody now knows that Haggard became, at least in part, one of the figures the song seems to mock. Most now realize that the hippies and outlaws of that era had more in common with Haggard’s restless spirit than did the flag-waving hard-hats who made up much of his audience back then. Today, crowds at his shows, regardless of persuasion, whoop it up when he sings that first line: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee…”
Haggard seems at peace with all that. “I had different views in the ’70s,” he says, selecting his words slowly. “As a human being, I’ve learned [more]. I have more culture now. I was dumb as a rock when I wrote ‘Okie From Muskogee’. That’s being honest with you at the moment, and a lot of things that I said [then] I sing with a different intention now.
“My views on marijuana have totally changed. I think we were brainwashed and I think anybody that doesn’t know that needs to get up and read and look around, get their own information. It’s a cooperative government project to make us think marijuana should be outlawed.”
But note it’s only that first line with which he takes issue. He swept the CMA awards in 1970, played the Nixon White House in 1973, was pardoned by California Governor Ronald Reagan, and never got a real shot at rock or pop radio. All largely on the strength of what he said, and who he said it to, in that one song.
Times have changed. “What was one side years ago is not the same deal now,” he muses. “I mean, what was a Democrat in 1960 doesn’t apply now.”
As has often been pointed out — particularly by Haggard’s liberal apologists — his career might have played out far differently had Capitol Records exec Ken Nelson granted Haggard’s wish to follow “Okie” with “Irma Jackson”, a song about an interracial romance. Instead, the next single was “Fightin’ Side Of Me”.
“It wasn’t exactly what they had in mind,” he says, a faint chuckle at the edge of his voice. “They figured it might be a problem. They had been awful good to me and allowed me to have my own head and everything on sessions. That was the only time they ever squelched anything I wanted to do, so I didn’t really argue with them. I just…’OK, can we put on an album?’ And they said, ‘Well, yeah.’ But they said, ‘I don’t think it’d be best for you to do that at this time, put it on a single.’ Whatever you say, Mr. Nelson. So I didn’t think no more about it.”
Ken Nelson had brought Haggard to Capitol — and had produced his records with a clean, sympathetic sound — along with Hank Thompson, Merle Travis, Jean Shepard, and Buck Owens. That is, he’d earned Haggard’s trust.
“Over the years it became an issue, because people found out they wouldn’t let me do that,” Haggard continues. “So, hindsight being 20/20, it probably did more good them not wanting it out and people finally finding out about it, than me putting it out anyway.”
But, no, he hardly repudiates “Fightin’ Side Of Me”. “I was a redneck to some degree, because I had just got out of the joint and I really had been somewhere where the mat was jerked out from underneath your feet,” Haggard says. (So powerful is his memory of prison that, though he wrote “Fightin’ Side” almost a decade after his release, the memory of San Quentin still haunts his thoughts.) “It destroyed my career in a certain way because people just said, ‘Ah, bullshit, if he feels that way then the hell with him.’ It destroyed a pop career for me for a period of time. But — the force works in mysterious ways and it may come back. It’s working in my favor now.”
And for a little cultural context, remember that Haggard showed up during that winter of 1969 to play “Okie” on the proudly left-leaning “Smothers Brothers Show”, lip-syncing while a field of waving flags was projected behind him, with the nearest thing to a hound dog slumped to his left. Haggard always seemed to thrive on the idea that this simple song could get so many people so worked up.
It’s also worth noting that Haggard sandwiched the flurry of releases capitalizing on “Okie” and “Fightin’ Side” with 1969′s Same Train, A Different Time: Merle Haggard Sings the Great Songs Of Jimmie Rodgers and 1970′s A Tribute to The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World (Or My Salute To Bob Wills).
In the end, that will do for summation of Haggard, for his songs are deeply personal, and deeply felt. Notice his connection to the soldier in Iraq his latest single seeks to refocus our attention upon. “The only people that realize what’s really going on is the soldier,” he says. “He’s the only guy out there that’s catching the human torment from it.” Human torment, that’s something Merle Haggard understands.