When Merle Haggard died yesterday at his California home at the age of 79, he left behind not only one of the grandest catalogs in American music history, but a collection of songs that pointedly addressed the feelings, conflicts and everyday trials of the common man.
There aren’t many Country Music Hall of Fame luminaries (he was inducted in 1994) with the political nerve and critical strength of Haggard. With this year’s presidential race reaching historic levels of insanity, it would’ve been quite the gift to hear one more Haggard gem guiding us like only he could do. But we do still have many sterling examples of how he often offered us three chords and Hag’s truth. Here are five of Haggard’s most political moments.
In 2007, still not that far removed from the conservative-fueled boycott of the Dixie Chicks, Haggard surprised an audience by playing “Hillary,” a song he had reportedly just written that morning. Evidently, he even warned the audience the song would probably send more than a few of them storming out of the building. He proceeded to sing a song about Hillary Clinton, then running for president against Barack Obama, saying that “Change needs to be large, let’s put a woman in charge.”
“Okie from Muskogee”
This is perhaps the most debated and misunderstood song in Haggard’s entire catalog. Released in 1969 on the album of the same name, Haggard wanted to express the frustration he felt at the way many Americans were living (and taking for granted) a life of freedom here at home while American soldiers were dying in Vietnam. Former president Richard Nixon was a fan of this song and had Haggard perform at the White House. Arguments over whether the Bible-beaters or the dope-smoking hippies are the intended targets of the classic still rage.
“Me and Crippled Soldiers”
This patriotic outlaw-tinged tune displays so much of what always made Haggard great. His unwillingness to be nailed down into one tidy little philosophical corner kept the crazies from either wing from ever rightfully claiming him. On this song from 1990, Haggard takes a defiant stance against those who see the flag burning as a way to protest. The title is impactful and the message is crystal. This song was his way to fan the flames in a different direction.
“That’s the News”
In another example of how Haggard stayed politically outspoken well past his chart-topping heyday, this cutting song from 2003 takes aim at numerous targets including the fickle tabloid-minded media and the bureaucrats sending our troops to war, only to ignore the sacrifices made. “Politicians do all the talkin’, soldiers pay the dues,” he sings. Haggard’s rich baritone is the perfect vehicle for sending these messages of frustration forward while sounding so nice.
“Fightin’ Side of Me”
Released just after “Okie from Muskogee,” this iconic number is sort of a given for this kind of list. In a seemingly more straightforward manner, though, Haggard suggests that those who don’t love this country should “leave it.” He’s really over those who are “running down my country.” As much as any other song, Haggard wants to make it perfectly clear that not everyone has to love everyone. But in his mind, it’s the duty of all Americans to appreciate freedom and the way in which it’s been preserved.