There was a time when Merle Haggard defined defiantly prideful pro-Americanism better than anyone. During the dark days of the Vietnam War, the gruff California country singer penned two songs, "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me," that answered Bob Dylan and Joan Baez about as well as anyone could.
The man later known by the delightful sobriquet The Hag didn't mince words. "Okie From Muskogee" (perhaps you know it as a place where even squares can have a ball) started with an obstinate slant-rhyme: "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don't take our trips on LSD."
"The Fightin' Side of Me," on the other hand, was as gentlemanly a threat as the former San Quentin inmate could manage. Basically, Haggard said, he didn't mind when some squirrelly guy who claims he just doesn't believe in fightin' goes switchin' sides, so long as he doesn't take to runnin' down our country which, unfortunately, would place him firmly on the fightin' side of Merle.
Merle Haggard is scheduled to perform on Sunday, May 9, at Mesa Arts Center.
Even after 'Nam, Haggard remained a steadfast champion of the American working class, recording a 1973 recession-busting anthem that promised, "If we make it through December / Everything's gonna be all right."
That's what makes Haggard's current worldview so fucking depressing. Soul-crushingly sad, really. Talking to Haggard — the Ben Franklin of Bakersfield, we can call him — you get the sense that he's more or less lost hope in the good ol' U.S. of A.
It's not that he's plunged into the Palin-esque far right, either. Actually, Merle's view today is mature and much more nuanced: a balanced blend of libertarian-tinged moderate conservatism. For example, his wife is now a licensed medical marijuana user in the state of California, where the couple lives. He recorded a song for the latest Michael Moore movie. Also, he's firmly opposed to Arizona's SB 1070. Sure, illegal immigration is a huge problem, he says, but that ain't no way to fix it.
"I think it's unconstitutional. You know, you see the guy on TV — the Mexican kid that's fixing to leave home and go fight [in Iraq], and he was born here and if he wasn't in uniform, they'd profile him. That's not right," he says. "There certainly needs to be something done about the border — there's no doubt about that — but you can't just jump up and criminalize everybody."
While he'll hop up on his soapbox for a few minutes on the phone, Haggard won't step into the studio to make such points. He seems pounded down by the profound alienation and melancholia of our time. He can't bring himself to write about it, which is why the old outlaw's newest record, I Am What I Am, finds him mostly singing about old trains, mariachi music, and love.
"It's more personal. It's more about me and my life, which is probably the best subject for me to write about," he says. "I just got mad and tried to write about politics and say something that would be encouraging and not put people down and, boy, it just got to where it couldn't happen. So I just said, 'Well, 'I'm going to write about something else.' It's a sad goddamn thing. There's no way around it."
At age 73, Merle is a fighter punch-drunk on politics, drained of optimism.
"For eight years, everybody was so mad at Bush, and now I think they're so disappointed in this president that nobody even cares. It's like, 'We gave him a chance, we elected him, he stands as the first black man to command that office — what a chance he's got,'" Merle says. "What stands out in my mind is going out and giving them the right to drill for oil in the Northeast [with offshore drilling, a reversal of Obama's early 2008 campaign strategy] and that's totally against the people who voted for him."
So why not record another "Let's Put a Woman in Charge," in which he campaigned for Hillary Clinton, the pragmatic choice for president who unfortunately was beat by HOPE, smoke, and mirrors?
"I'm too old to get too mad," he says. "There's so many thing wrong, so many things that are seemingly incurable . . . I just can't see it happening within the next 30 years. That one loan, that one devaluation of currency, the crippling of our currency as compared to world currency . . . The jobs in America going away, going to other countries. It makes you wonder, 'What is America going to become? A FedEx stop?'"
Even though he's too old to get mad, Haggard says he wouldn't trade places with anyone in the next generation.
"I'm glad I'm not your age, because what's to come is just overwhelming," he says. "That's the reason I probably chose to write about my own life. There's one song on there, 'I've Seen It Go Away,' and that's really the way I feel about it."
In the middle of that song, the first track on his new record, Haggard drops down to a whispered spoken-word cadence and delivers what ends up being the most profound statement on an otherwise apolitical album.
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This is what he says:
"I've seen it all completely fall apart, and I've seen our greatest leaders break the people's heart. I've seen most of what was begotten have a whole lot better days. I've seen it, kids, and I've seen it go away."
Got anything to say to that, Mr. Dylan? How about you, Ms. Baez?