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Country legend Merle Haggard is on the phone from his hotel room in Tucson. He performed there last night, and right after this interview, he'll jump on the tour bus and head for another show in El Paso. Despite the decades-long grind of travel and repetitious interviews, the 65-year-old Hag comes off genuine and unassuming.
Being in Arizona evokes a few memories for the California native. Haggard first visited Phoenix in 1953. Back then, Phoenix was just a little city at the beginning of its phenomenal post-World War II growth. The 16-year-old Haggard was not old enough to legally play in clubs, but he managed to secure a gig at the Diamond Bar on East Washington Street for two dollars a day, room and board, and, of course, beer. Almost 50 years later, Haggard recalls, "I wound up gettin' broke and picked up for vagrancy or some damn thing and wound up doin' about 60 days in jail. What I remember out of all that was gettin' a migraine headache in jail and not bein' able to get pills. You'd think I would remember the bar, but not like that migraine!"
Haggard goes on to explain, "Those were turbulent times. My dad passed away when I was 9, and I was in trouble by the time I was 10. I was raised in juvenile facilities in California. My mother was alone in the world and couldn't control me. I went from one jam to the next." Haggard's classic hit "Mama Tried" sympathetically documents his widowed mother's struggle to raise her unruly son.
After a string of burglaries, thefts and jailbreaks, Haggard wound up in California's San Quentin State Prison. His experiences as an inmate and a fugitive provided one of the pillars of his songwriting after his release in 1960. Songs like "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" (1966), "Branded Man" (1967) and "Sing Me Back Home" (1968) launched Haggard to the top of the country charts where he claimed 39 No. 1 hits over the course of his career. By the late 1960s, Hag was well-known and respected for his honest lyrical approach and his unique blend of country, honky-tonk, swing, folk, blues, jazz and pop.
As a man who did time in San Quentin's infamous solitary confinement "hole," Haggard qualifies as someone who understands the value of freedom, and he worries about the decline of personal liberties in America in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
"We had more freedom and voice of opinion in 1960 in San Quentin than we do now on the street," he says. "We can't say anything now like we could back then. Little by little, we've allowed them to take our freedoms away. Prior to September 11, the U.S. was the last place without M-16s in the street, and now we'll join the rest. We were in better shape 24 months ago than now. Never before have I been afraid to speak out. In the last few weeks I have."
Many people are surprised to hear Merle Haggard criticize the Bush administration, and they ask him if he's still the same Hag who penned the stubbornly patriotic "The Fightin' Side of Me" during the Vietnam War. To that, Haggard replies, "I'm red, white and blue all the way. I just wonder, did we really vote this president in? Did he really win? Does the rest of the world see us as the bullies of the planet?"
Haggard being misunderstood by his listeners is nothing new. In 1969, at the peak of the counterculture and widespread student protest against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Hag released "Okie From Muskogee," and it shot straight to the top of the country charts. In the song's opening lines, Haggard earnestly sings, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD/We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street/'Cause we like livin' right and bein' free." Conservative America quickly and enthusiastically adopted "Okie" as an anthem that reflected their values. Richard Nixon sent Haggard a letter of congratulations, George Wallace wanted him for his presidential campaign, and the white supremacist David Duke asked him to play a private party. Says Haggard, "I told him [Duke] to go get fucked."
Most people did not realize (and some still don't) that "Okie From Muskogee" was a social commentary that did not necessarily reflect Haggard's personal worldview. "Ya know, I'm like an actor, and whatever role you see an actor in shouldn't have anything to do with his own personality, but it does, of course," he says. "That song typecasted me for a long time.
"'Okie From Muskogee' was written about my father, and it was my intention to try to see things from his viewpoint. Had he been alive at that time, I think he woulda said, 'We're happy with the way things are here in the middle of Oklahoma, and we're really not wantin' to get out in the street and bitch like the people in Frisco.' The song was a contrast to what was going on, and there was nobody speaking up for [people like my dad], and I thought I'd jump out there and write a song for him."