One of my favorite popular musical tales concerns the writing of "Okie From Muskogee," a song that enmeshed its author, Merle Haggard, within a cultural and political misunderstanding that seems to have lifted only in the last decade or so. As the story goes, Hag and his band were traveling by bus through Oklahoma. As they passed by a sign for Muskogee, Haggard -- a Californian of Okie descent -- launched into a little joke on his roots for the boys on the bus, singing, "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee." (Were they toking themselves? Perhaps.) Being the late '60s, a time of great cultural divisions, this small expression of that state of mind got a good laugh from Haggard's compatriots. So the star and his band member Eddie Burris ran with the joke, all just in good fun.
At a concert soon after, the band started urging Haggard to share their in-joke with the audience; once again, just for some chuckles. The reaction of the concertgoers, however, was hardly laughs; wild cheering and applause erupted at the song's end -- his audience at the show was Green Berets at Fort Bragg, after all -- much to Haggard's surprise. He continued performing the song to similar reaction, and eventually recorded it and released the tune as a single. It not only became a big hit, but also a cultural touchstone, speaking for the great unhip masses it had originally poked good-natured fun at. And at the same time, it marked Haggard as some sort of enemy of the counterculture, a reactionary, flag-waving patriot in an era when such attitudes were reviled by the (so-called) liberals.
There's no doubt that Haggard is some form of patriot, but reactionary is hardly a fair description of his musical ethos, even if it does often celebrate old-fashioned country-music values. After all, the man was, as a youth, one of the original rebels without a cause. After his parole from California's San Quentin prison, he started working the juke joints around his hometown of Bakersfield in the Golden State's Central Valley. He cut his first record in 1962, and soon became a leading light -- along with Buck Owens, an early Haggard mentor -- of the Bakersfield Sound, which combined purist country-and-western roots with a modernist approach, and mounted what is still the only genuine alternative to Nashville's hegemony in the country-music world.
Billy Bob's Texas
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Haggard's progressive approach was balanced by his reverence for the pioneers who came before him. His Bob Wills album, 1970's A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, sparked the Western Swing revival, just as his 1968 collection of Jimmie Rodgers songs, Same Train, a Different Time, refocused attention on the primacy of the Singing Brakeman as a musical innovator. Yet he also kept his horizons focused beyond just his country roots by cutting a set of New Orleans-influenced music. Add that to the extensive list of standards he wrote and recorded in his own inimitable style -- when I think Haggard, I think of songs like "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Ramblin' Fever" and "Big City," just a few of the many great ones -- and you have one of the most complete yet individual talents that modern country music has produced.
Now that the cultural divide that "Okie..." was wedged into has subsided, hipsters can now embrace Haggard for what he's always been: a great American populist (you can hear that in everything from "Workin' Man Blues" to "If We Make It Through December") and the sort of rugged individualist that someone like John Wayne, for example, only acted as if he was. Haggard is also, of course, one of country's -- if not American music at large's -- greatest writers, singers, and bandleaders. (Find out for yourself: Sony Legacy will reissue a beefed-up and re-mastered version of Haggard's classic 1981 Epic Records debut, Big City, on October 19 -- along with Johnny Cash's Live at Folsom Prison, Tammy Wynette's Stand By Your Man, Marty Robbins' Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs, and Willie Nelson's Stardust -- as part of its new American Heritage series.)
What you get with Haggard live is worth every minute of it, even if, as he consistently does these days, you get only about 60 minutes from this legend. But in those hour shows, you'll hear songs of oaken authenticity and strength, one after another, not a duff one in the set. You get to hear a voice that brims with authority yet conveys an equal measure of informed sensitivity. And in The Strangers, his longtime backup band, you will hear one of the most well-oiled collections of country musicians -- they can actually shuffle better than any band here in Texas, where the shuffle is God's law in the dance halls -- interact with an artist as dynamic, in his own very subtle way, as any in popular music.
That's why I always catch the Hag anytime his bus rolls through these parts, and why anyone with an appreciation for real country music should do the same. Yes, there's all that stuff about seeing a living legend. But even better, it's a legend still in action -- not just resting on his considerable laurels, but standing atop them with unshakable pride.