It might seem odd to be discussing country legend Merle Haggard in a rock & roll blog, but the singer-songwriter was unquestionably a rocker in spirit—at least the outlaw kind. This was a man who, in Bob Dylan’s words, “transcends the country genre.”
Anyone can call himself a rebel but this dude started out as a bona fide desperado. He spent much of his impoverished youth in juvenile detention centers and state prisons before turning his life around after joining a country band in San Quentin, inspired by a 1958 Johnny Cash gig at the prison.
Within two years Merle was paroled and quickly got his first record contact. By 1965 he had his first Top 10 country hit, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” and his career was off and running.
By the time he passed away last week on his 79th birthday, he had amassed an astonishing 38 #1 country hits and 71 Top 10 country hits, including “Mama Tried,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “”Workin’ Man Blues.” All the more impressive given where he started.
One obvious lesson to learn from Merle Haggard is the importance of doing it your way and, in the process, separating yourself from the pack. Merle did it first by making Bakersfield, California his musical home in the 1960s—not Nashville, which was home to the more polished sound of country—and playing a grittier, twangier style than was heard on country radio at the time.
He also cut against the grain by writing and recording the controversial redneck anthem, “Okie From Muskogee” in 1968, with the memorable lines, “We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street.”
But what nobody seems to appreciate is that what made this guy distinct was not the traditional values expressed in that song but his willingness to speak his mind regardless of who might get bent out of shape by it. In fact, the follow-up single to “Okie” that he was preparing to release was about an interracial romance—which would have pissed off a lot of the good folks down on Main Street—but his record company overruled him and released “The Fighting Side of Me” instead.
Decades later Merle would even say “I was dumb as a rock when I wrote 'Okie From Muskogee.’” But the song expressed how he felt at the time and he didn’t care about the reaction—though it became one of his biggest hits.
Later he defended The Dixie Chicks—to the consternation of many of his supporters—after the Chicks were blackballed from country radio for criticizing President Bush and his preparation for an invasion of Iraq in 2003 (as written here). But that was also how Merle felt in the moment.
In the end the Haggard warrior stayed true to himself, the loner who took pride in his contrarian independence. As he would often sing: “He who travels fastest goes alone.”