Listening to Old Voices: Merle Haggard

Poet with Dirty Fingernails

Music Features Merle Haggard
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efore bands like The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers merged country and rock music, musicians from the two genres rarely mingled; they were more likely to flash a one-fingered salute than a peace sign to one another. Merle Haggard was a country musician, no apologies offered, and he let it be known he was willing and able to kick the sissy ass of any longhaired, psychedelicized hippie who felt inclined to burn a draft card or run down his beloved U.S. of A. In 1969 and ’70, at the height of the bitter cultural chasm that divided the country over the Vietnam War, Haggard sang “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” love-it-or-leave-it mortar shells lobbed in the general direction of the counterculture, notable as much for their inflammatory rhetoric as for their plainspoken patriotism.

As a countercultural wannabe at the time, possessed of a sissy hippie ass in the making, I could take a not-so-subtle hint. Merle may have played well in Muskogee, but in my neck of the post-Woodstock woods he was Public Redneck #1. If I thought about him at all, I thought about him with the smugness that comes from the certainty of one’s beliefs.

So maybe you learn something along the way. Merle Haggard has some tenacious beliefs of his own, one of them being the notion that regular people matter. They’re stuck in prison cells, driving big rigs, working the fields and drinking too much on the weekends, but not enough to drown the memories of lost loves and raw deals. So these days I’m more inclined to think Merle Haggard is Johnny Cash without the hip cachet, a no frills storyteller with an untamed colt of a voice and a penchant for nailing the desperate realities of hardscrabble lives. You can taste the dirt in Merle’s music. And he’s left a body of songs that stand with Guthrie, Dylan, Cash and Springsteen in giving voice to those who otherwise had no voice. For almost 25 years, from the mid ’60s through the late ’80s, Haggard made a series of albums for Capitol, MCA and Epic that ought to be celebrated as some of the best in American music. Now that country is dominated by future aerobics instructors and popsters in cowboy hats, it’s good to remember the real deal. There were thousands of ramblers and hellraisers before him, dead-end Okie kids out in California’s Central Valley, driven from their homes by dust only to find themselves enslaved by the dirt again. But Merle just happened to write songs that could sear your soul.

It came about in the most unlikely of places. The Central Valley city that gave the Bakersfield sound its name was a blue-collar agricultural and oil-refinery center in the early ’60s. With their bands honed to perfection in the town’s rowdy juke joints, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and a host of formidable companions came through the swinging barroom doors and into mainstream America with lilting pedal steel, a straight-ahead backbeat and Fender Telecasters blazing away. It was as far removed from the string-heavy, polite Nashville countrypolitan sound of the time as could be imagined. Early songs like “Swinging Doors” and “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” perfectly capture the ethos of the honky tonks; they’re the quintessential truckstop jukebox anthems. But, within a year, Merle had moved on to more autobiographical material, frankly addressing his wayward youth and prison years in songs such as “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried,” one of the most bleak and clear-eyed self-assessments ever recorded. In the end, the many musical styles he incorporated into his music didn’t matter. He found his authentic voice, that plain-as-dirt wisdom, in Western swing tunes, Jimmie Rodgers blue yodels, hard-edged honky-tonk stompers and country-folk protest songs. And he certainly found it on classic weepers like “Today I Started Loving You Again,” where he distilled sorrow into two minutes and twenty seconds.

And he found it, sort of, on “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” I still don’t like those songs. But now I hear things I didn’t hear before. On “The Fightin’ Side of Me” he sings, “I don’t mind ’em switchin’ sides / And standin’ up for things they believe in.” And that’s all Merle Haggard has been saying for the past 40 years. So maybe I’m willing to cut him some slack. I listen to him rip through a song like “Workin’ Man Blues,” with that Telecaster roaring behind him, and politics are the farthest thing from my mind:

Sometimes I think about leaving, do a little bummin’ around I wanna throw my bills out the window catch a train to another town But I go back working I gotta buy my kids a brand new pair of shoes Yeah drink a little beer in a tavern, Cry a little bit of these working man blues

These days a lot of working men are likely to tap away on a computer keyboard for a living. They probably didn’t spend their 21st birthdays in prison, doin’ life without parole. So maybe they don’t understand. But maybe it’s not all that different; maybe it’s just rednecks and old hippies, all bustin’ butt for The Man. And maybe Merle nailed that one, too. Looks like Mama did all right, after all.