In 2006, I saw Merle Haggard open for Bob Dylan in Orlando, Florida. I assumed everyone else who had shelled out fifty bucks was there to see Dylan, too. But the group in front of me, after conspicuously enjoying Haggard’s set, got up and left without looking back.
At the time, I was mildly puzzled. Eventually I came to understand the abrupt exit as a minor episode in the conflict which made Merle Haggard famous. In the 1960s, Haggard became known, even to people who never listened to country music, as a singing spokesman for the Silent Majority, the musical equivalent of the “hardhats” who beat up antiwar demonstrators. He was the Bob Dylan of the counter-counterculture. The counterculture responded in kind, like when hip TV comedian Tom Smothers mockingly introduced a Haggard performance while pretending to get high. The kind of people who listened to Dylan were supposed to hate Haggard, and the kind of people who listened to Haggard were supposed to hate the people who listened to Dylan. But the fact that, decades later, he was touring with Dylan suggested there was more to Haggard’s politics than right-wing backlash.
As it turned out, everything about Merle Haggard was confusing. And nothing was more confusing than his 1969 chart topper, “Okie from Muskogee.” The song is essentially a catalog of right-thinking Muskogean do’s and don’ts delivered in the first person plural: in Muskogee, we wear boots, not sandals; indulge in moonshine, not pot; hold hands instead of orgies; et cetera. In Muskogee, Haggard sings, “football’s still the roughest thing on campus / And the kids here still respect the college dean.” On the page, the lyrics are pointedly uncomplicated, a deadening and tedious rebuke from middle America to the hippies. The song seemed so self-evident that Richard Nixon, assuming it represented a country music consensus, asked Johnny Cash to play it for him. Cash claimed not to know the song, and played “What is Truth?,” a song with a strongly antiwar second verse, instead.
Haggard himself had a vexed relationship with his biggest hit, and it remains impossible to decide exactly how to interpret “Okie from Muskogee.” On one account, Haggard wrote the song as a straightforward conservative but changed his mind as the years passed. Haggard himself promoted this view in a 2003 interview:
I had different views in the ’70s. As a human being, I’ve learned [more]. I have more culture now. I was dumb as a rock when I wrote “Okie From Muskogee.” That’s being honest with you at the moment, and a lot of things that I said [then] I sing with a different intention now. My views on marijuana have totally changed.1
But according to other journalists, Haggard joked that Muskogee was the only place he didn’t smoke marijuana. This is the second familiar interpretation: the song has always been a joke. According to David Cantwell’s biography, Haggard and his bandmates were getting blazed on the tour bus when they saw a road sign for Muskogee. They wrote the opening line—“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”—while passing a joint around. But there’s no doubting Haggard’s sincerity when he said, “My father worked hard on his farm, was proud of it, and got called white trash once he took to the road as an Okie. . . . Listen to that line: ‘I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee.’ Nobody has ever said that before in a song.”
So the song is, somehow, a dead earnest joke. An early live performance of “Okie from Muskogee” shows all the contradictions at work.2 Haggard’s bandmates are dressed to resemble soldiers and the crowd is lively, intimate, suggestive of real community. He sings the song with authoritative seriousness and seems to take pleasure in the quality of his lyrics. But wordlessly, he sometimes signals ironic distance or at least discomfort, giving the hint of a laugh or raised eyebrow. Years later, rock critic Robert Christgau sarcastically asked, “Tell us, Merle, just which college dean do you respect?” But watch Haggard sing the line itself. At least from where I’m sitting, you can see him almost roll his eyes.
Popular recording artists with complex self-presentations are a common breed, and the basic distinction between “speaker” and “author” goes some length toward reconciling Haggard’s apparently contradictory personae. But the ambiguity that tailed Haggard like a shadow was the result of an unusual life filled with profound contrasts. He grew up in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, CA, and had stints in prison (and also several escape attempts) beginning in his teens, before finding artistic and commercial triumph. A country vocalist and songwriter with few peers living or dead, Haggard managed to navigate the changing sounds (and hairstyles) of mainstream country without conceding an inch to fads. He helped import the tough Okie diaspora sounds of Bakersfield into middle-of-the-road Nashville, blazing a path for several generations of “neo-traditional” revivalists and breaking down the artificial walls separating country from rock. But after the success of “Okie,” he also faced years of listlessness, addiction, and receding relevance, followed by a comeback of sorts. His mercurial politics were likewise intensely personal: Haggard dreaded his command performance at the Nixon White House as “hand-to-hand combat with the enemy” (he derided the elite, bow-tied audience as “a bunch of department store mannequins”) but enthusiastically backed Reagan out of gratitude for the pardon the erstwhile California governor had once granted the ex-felon.
One of Haggard’s many profound gifts—one of Bob Dylan’s too—was the ability to do convincing impressions. You can hear them on a 1970 live album recorded in Philadelphia (the “cradle of American liberty,” as the album cover has it) to promote “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” the even more jingoistic follow-up single to “Okie.” Haggard mimics Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, and his Bakersfield/Okie paisan Buck Owens. He inhabits the voice of each talented and idiosyncratic performer so convincingly that the listener may find herself questioning whether anything is inimitable. (There may have been deeper forms of mimesis afoot as well—Haggard performs these songs onstage with his wife Bonnie Owens, the ex-wife of Buck Owens, one of the men he imitates.) At the end of the concert, when he gives the Philadelphia crowd the militarist anthem they want, you wonder if it’s just another impersonation.
Attempts to understand what Haggard really meant can quickly draw you into stoner banalities. It might be more worthwhile to wonder what he tells us about the world he lived in. We can think about Haggard as an acute chronicler of the booms and busts of 20th-century American capitalism. His career peaked in the flush 1960s, but he always had one eye cast over his shoulder back to the Depression and the other on the lookout for cracks in the Golden Age. In 1973, the year the oil shock tipped the already faltering global economy into a prolonged downturn, Haggard had a huge crossover hit with “If We Make it Through December.” Described by Rick Perlstein as “the unlikeliest Top 40 hit ever,” the song is told from the perspective of a laid-off factory worker who must explain to his daughter why there will be no Christmas this year. It’s a great song, for its composition, arrangement, and recording alone. But it’s also canny. It identifies vertiginous economic dislocation—not longhaired hippies—as the real enemy in the war on Christmas. Its mixture of devastation and stubborn hope (“if we make it through,” things will be better) is an agonizing instance of cruel optimism: attached to unachievable goals (e.g. a good American manufacturing job) in such a way that defiance reinforces the sense of being trapped.
His ambivalences line up with broader currents of cultural history. Our best account of this is Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, a portrait of the 1970s as a time when American politics, and especially white male working-class loyalties, were moving “vigorously right, left, and center at the same time.” The book recalls an era when organized labor went on strike more times than at any period since the 1940s—but when these strikes were often “wildcat” actions, unsanctioned by the union leadership and often against that same leadership. Labor didn’t look the same as it did before: autoworkers at a factory in Lordstown wore their hair long and smoked pot, and went on strike because of speedup on the line, not wages or benefits. As labor strife increased, many blue-collar whites found themselves attracted to the defiant white supremacism of George Wallace, the Alabama politician who won five states as a third-party candidate for President in 1968. Often the radicals and the revanchists were the same people, like the trucker who Cowie quotes as saying, “I’m for either him [Wallace] or the Communists, I don’t care, just anybody who wouldn’t be afraid of the big companies.” Genteel National Review fretted about populism but used the same rhetoric, publishing an anti-Wallace salvo called “Country and Western Marxism: to the Nashville Station.”
The complexities of Merle Haggard were bound up with the complexities of a baffling political moment, when old rules had been destroyed without new ones being written, a time when everything seemed frustrating but anything seemed possible. But there is nothing inherently redemptive about flux or paradox. It’s nice to know that some George Wallace voters had a kind word for the Communists, just as it’s nice that Haggard followed “Okie from Muskogee” with “Irma Jackson,” a sympathetic portrayal of an interracial romance. But in the end Wallace-style fusion of redistributive populism with open racism crippled progressive politics in this country. There is no reason to forgive Haggard for singing “I ain’t never been on welfare / that’s one place I won’t be,” or “I wasn’t born and raised in no ghetto / just a white boy looking for a place to do my thing.”
Donald Trump has restored white working class grievances, real and imagined, to the prominence they enjoyed in the age of George Wallace. But in the those years, white workers were never just a bunch of Archie Bunkers, and they are not just a mob of Trumpkins today. In a rebirth of “Country & Western Marxism,” references to a protean “Trump–Sanders constituency” are now commonplace. A New York Times profile of freshly laid-off workers at Carrier Air Conditioner in Indianapolis gives us a glance at some of these voters. Trump has made Carrier a centerpiece of his protectionist rhetoric, but while the Carrier workers interviewed appreciate the national attention, few express a desire to vote for Trump, often because they object to his manifest racism. At least one planned to vote for Sanders.
One of Haggard’s memorable later songs, “Are the Good Times Really Over,” could easily be retitled “We Don’t Win Anymore”: “I wish a buck was still silver / It was back when the country was strong. . . . Wish a Ford and a Chevy / Could still last ten years, like they should.” But if it’s easy to imagine Merle Haggard finding kind words for Trump, it’s not hard to imagine alternative and contradictory scenarios.3 Among his usual posts about marijuana and Bernie Sanders, Killer Mike tweeted early Thursday morning: “RIP Merle Haggard #OutLawCountry.”
Intriguingly, Bob Dylan used an identical line of argument to explain away his apparent criticisms of Haggard in 2015: “I wasn’t dissing Merle, not the Merle I know. What I was talking about happened a long time ago, maybe in the late ’60s . . . But of course times have changed and he’s changed too.” ↩
According to an interview conducted in the hospital earlier this year, Haggard was observing Trump with “amusement and concern” and reached a skeptical conclusion: “I think he’s dealing from a strange deck.” http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/merle-haggard-returns-to-road-after-health-scare-im-lucky-to-be-alive-20160201 ↩