Branded Man

Fifty years into his career, Merle Haggard is still stubbornly going against the grain

Haggard continues, "It ['Okie From Muskogee'] nearly stopped my career. They were beginning to play me on rock stations, and it stopped all that. A lot of people who analyzed my career said that song was probably a mistake. But Willie Nelson said, 'Hey, if you don't want the son of a bitch, I'll trade you "Crazy" for it!'" Hag laughs a hearty laugh and goes on to say that he doesn't really have regrets about the song.

"If I was to do it over again, it would take a lot more thought. I thought it was funny. The song was humorous. It was like the epitome of the ignorance on certain subjects. But I'll be damned if people like Wallace and Nixon didn't take it for the truth. It makes me wonder what kind of politicians we've got in [Washington] now. Do they have the same mentality as they did during the days of 'Okie From Muskogee'?"

In a 1974 interview, Haggard revealed that Muskogee was the only place where he didn't smoke marijuana. These days, his smoking habits are considerably different. "I had to quit smoking marijuana 'cause they was gonna lock me away, and I quit smoking cigarettes in 1991," he says. "Drinking was never a problem, but I'm a smoke freak. I smoked RJ Reynolds Camel shorts for 50 years. Now I smoke hemp. There's no THC in it, and they can't lock you up for it. It's an alternative smoke to tobacco or marijuana, either one."

Merle Haggard: One of the few vintage country giants who's still delivering the goods onstage.
Merle Haggard: One of the few vintage country giants who's still delivering the goods onstage.
Merle Haggard: The voice of working-class outsiders everywhere.
Pipor Forguson
Merle Haggard: The voice of working-class outsiders everywhere.

People like Nixon apparently never knew about the hemp enthusiast in Haggard, or perhaps they chose to ignore the fact because it didn't fit their preconceived notions. Others have finally learned that to pigeonhole the multifaceted Haggard as the Okie from Muskogee is to deny the complexity of the man.

Haggard isn't technically from Muskogee, Oklahoma, but his roots stem from that part of the country. During the 1930s, his family left Oklahoma and joined the historic westward migration of lower Midwestern families displaced by the Great Depression, the mechanization of agriculture, and devastating drought. Haggard songs such as "Hungry Eyes" and "Tulare Dust" document the struggles of the often unwelcome migrant workers with an inside knowledge and sincerity that surpasses even Dorothea Lange's most riveting photographs of life in the labor camps and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.

In 1937, after the Haggard family moved to California, Merle was born in a converted boxcar in Oildale, just outside of Bakersfield. Though he was California-born, Haggard's "Okie" background deeply affected his early life. "I was an Okie. When they called you an Okie, it was with disrespect. My dad was nicknamed Okie. Black people and Hispanic people identify with me because I've been kicked out of white society so many times that I qualify. And I'm proud of that. I'm proud to be something, proud to be an American, proud to be an Okie."

Haggard may be proud, but he never hesitates to give credit to others who've inspired him. Over the course of his career, he's recorded tributes to country greats Jimmie Rodgers (1969) and Bob Wills (1970). As Haggard puts it, "It's a deep love of mine to pay tribute to people and to the kind of music that made my life what it is." On his latest release, Roots, Volume 1, the follow-up to his critically acclaimed If I Could Only Fly, Haggard pays tribute to his lifelong idol and country chart topper Lefty Frizzell, as well as classic country icons Hank Williams and Hank Thompson. On Roots, Hag teams up with Norm Stephens, the original Frizzell guitarist who also did stints with Williams and Thompson. Stephens was one of the two or three people after whom Haggard styled his guitar playing. Haggard says, "It would have been unacceptable not to take advantage of Norm Stephens living so close. I found out that he was living 12 miles from me, and it was too big of an opportunity not to take advantage of his knowledge and go and record something in the same way they did it back then."

Unfortunately, you aren't likely to hear Roots on today's country radio, now dominated by manufactured, Garth Brooks types in black cowboy hats. Haggard does not hide his distaste for the current country scene, which he perceives to be more about image and videos than music. "I don't listen to it. I quit listening to it about 10 years ago. It just doesn't have anything for me. It doesn't have a tear, and it doesn't have any humor." According to Haggard, "Country radio these days is not a pretty picture. You've got 800 stations with one program director. It's repetition all day long, and listeners can't call in and tell a station whether they like the songs or not, 'cause there's nobody there."

Despite Haggard's lack of airplay, his true fans still keep in touch with what he is doing. "I have a very wide, varied audience. They are people of all ages and from all walks of life. I have some good fans. I'm proud of my audiences. And my audiences finally understand me. Of course, there are still those fanatics who believe that they don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee, but most people understand the overall idea and appreciate the tidbits of political input."

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