Branded Man

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

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.

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.

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."

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."

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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