Now Merle Haggard is talking. He’s in his car, somewhere near his home in Bakersfield, CA, and he’s talking about the legendary Bob Wills. I’ve been on the phone with Haggard for fifteen minutes now, underhanding questions about his 2008 cancer scare and whether “the mood” was any different during the recording of this year’s I Am What I Am, the seventy-sixth release in his forty-five year career. He has been, it is fair to say, bored by my questions (“It was pretty good,” he says dryly of I Am What I Am’s mood. “It was real upbeat all the way through.”). I am on the phone with Merle Haggard, and I am asking him questions that could have been answered by his press release.
But then I stumble onto Bob Wills. Wills’ name pulls something out of Haggard as we talk, as if Wills himself is calling out to him in that sweet milky holler of his. “There were periods [in the 1960s] when I was working in the clubs and it was a real cold period for Bob Wills. Everybody used steel guitars and pianos, but not fiddles,” he says. Haggard’s subtle response was 1970’s A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player of All Time (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills). He taught himself to play the fiddle in a month and tacked members of Wills’ legendary Texas Playboys onto his own hard-nosed country outfit, The Strangers. To hear Haggard tell it, his Tribute pulled Wills back from the brink of obscurity, influencing acts as disparate as Asleep at the Wheel and George Strait; “a number of bands fell out of the woodwork because of that album,” he says. “There was nobody that could do [what Wills did]. He just did his own thing, and his own thing happened to be something that people loved.”
Though he still scorches his fiddle, it’s this aspect of Wills’ legacy that Haggard has carried forward. For forty-five years now, Haggard has refused to play anyone else’s part or fulfill anyone’s definitions of who he is or what he’s all about. Does 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me” make you think that he’s an angry conservative, ready to run all the squirrelly liberals out of office? Think again: Hag wrote a song for Hillary Clinton and supported Barack Obama for the general election in 2008. Think he’s gone soft and sold out his core fan base? “Why don’t we liberate these United States? We’re the ones who need it worst,” he answers in 2005’s “America First,” before blessing liberty and the army and saying “dadgum” to all other comers. At some point in our conversation, he concedes that U.S. interests in Vietnam might have been dubious—“but we broke Communism’s back!” he shouts. Later he will seethe as he complains about Obama and the mistakes he believes the President has made since taking office. But he skews progressive on the issues that turn the red states red: I Am What I Am’s “Mexican Bands” finds Hag hinting that in the “early mañana, I’ll smoke what I wanna” after apologizing for not knowing Spanish any better than he does. We understand nothing of Merle Haggard, and yet he’s right here in front of us.
This refusal to be pegged down has always been the engine driving Hag’s music, but it comes out in full force on I Am What I Am’s title track, a ballad of strong personal conviction that doesn’t feel the need to shout to be heard. In fact, the track quietly unspools itself, mixing heartfelt emotion with campy comedy in a light melody, confounding those who’d believe an autobiographical Merle Haggard song might be delivered through gritted teeth. Perhaps more than anything, the song is about Haggard’s comfort with himself as he rejects the various labels assigned to him over the years, whether by desperate journalists, rabid fans, or his own hand. “He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,” Kris Kristofferson famously said about Johnny Cash. You might be tempted to say the same about Merle Haggard, but you’d only be half right; there’s not a bit of fiction about him.
And yet, we all seem to think that the side Haggard’s fighting for is ours. Sixteen Merle Haggard songs have been played over a million times on the radio, with a handful having been played two or three million times, an achievement that earns the musician recognition from the industry and a slightly increased royalty (“Now, that used to be the situation, but I understand now that they’re not following through with that anymore,” he says). And while Haggard has enjoyed some popular crossover success, it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of his radio plays were requested by the listeners of classic country radio stations spread throughout middle America—roughly the same demographic Haggard sings about in his 1969 hit “Okie From Muskogee,” a lilting country-folk tune sung from the point of view of a small-town Oklahoman watching the ways the United States were changing in the mid to late ‘60s. To many, “Okie” is an earnest anthem, a proud flag waving hard on Iwo Jima shore to remind us all that it’s alright not to be carried away by the waves of changing times. To some, the song is an ironic bludgeon, a knowing wink over the left shoulder that pokes fun at those same Dust Bowlers for not knowing that waves are meant to be surfed. The former point of view seems to have been driven home by “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Hag’s anything-but-funny follow-up single that introduced “If you don’t love it, leave it” to the American lexicon. The latter interpretation seems validated by Haggard in some interviews, in which he often tells reporters that the song was written as a satire. But more recently, he told Peter Cooper of American Songwriter that he now sings the song as a study of himself forty years ago; “I still believed in America then,” he told Cooper, implying that his sentiments in 1969 might have been more Oklahoman than he’s otherwise admitted. Any mention of “Okie” in rock circles is guaranteed to touch off a firestorm of arguers convinced that Haggard was singing for their particular side.
Haggard’s right to call “Okie From Muskogee” a study of his mindset in 1969, but it also seems to be a perfect study of Merle Haggard the public figure in 2010. No matter how his opinions are dressed, Haggard has always refused to be defined by outside forces—both those with him and those against him. But he’s no contrarian bent on automatic defiance, and he doesn’t pander to the expectations of his diverse audience. He instead lives in some quirk of cultural geography, disputed land bordered by the hard mountains of tradition and the swift streams of progress, with both sides claiming what belongs to neither. It’s this position that affords Haggard the unique opportunity to piss off as many people as he delights, and makes “Okie” the national anthem of both states. “I think the key to [the song’s] success is simply the word ‘proud,’” Haggard tells me. “’I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee’ and everyone else is proud to be something, too.” What’s important is to resist outside definition whether positive or negative, and to unapologetically be whoever it is you happen to be. It is in this way, and not by flag-waving and banner-furling, that Merle Haggard is an American artist; he lives what he doesn’t have to say.
At some point in our interview, I push Haggard to comment on the Gulf oil spill. I’m particularly interested in hearing his thoughts, I say, on Obama’s call for a moratorium on drilling, which is keeping thousands of Gulf Coast residents from working and is not only disrupting the national economy but obliterating the local economy in what seems to be an unjust punishment for a crime not committed by the people themselves. Haggard acknowledges the fact of the oil spill but moves it along and tells me what’s really pissing him off. — words/ m garner photo/ piper ferguson