During a career that spanned half a century, country singer Merle Haggard recorded hundreds of songs about America. And the songs are lovely — Haggard’s one-in-a-million voice, somehow both carefree and expertly controlled, settles lazily onto the earthy cushion of bright guitars and swinging piano characteristic of his signature “Bakersfield sound.”
It’s not hard to appreciate why Haggard is adored by millions across the country. At a time when Nashville was churning out slick radio-ready recordings that favored orchestral arrangements, Haggard made music better suited for front porches and honky-tonks than state theaters.
His style was as far from Nashville’s polish as you could get — the stink of big money was nowhere on him, and his elegant, no-bullshit lyrics resonated with a generation only once removed from the Dust Bowl.
Merle Haggard died on April 6, his seventy-ninth birthday, at his home in Northern California. There’s no question that his music, at its best, was exquisite. But for the better part of five decades, he provided the soundtrack of American reaction.
The America Merle Haggard sang about was an ugly, indefensible place, a revanchist fantasy where the democratizing momentum of the 1960s never swept from sinful coastline cities into the pure heart of the middle country; where history and politics remained untroubled by the presence of non-whites; where women existed only to break hearts and be heartbroken (generally in lonesome small-town diners); and where the most working-class people could hope for was martyrdom, not liberation.
For Haggard, working-class allegiance meant political conservatism. He shape-shifted to suit the times, but never wavered in his reactionary posture. He was a hippie-hating hawk in the sixties and seventies, a dutiful Reaganite in the eighties, and a petulant chest-pounder during the first Gulf War, when he broke a mid-career spell of semi-obscurity with a song criticizing antiwar protesters. There are precious few lyrics in his songbook worth defending.
In 1969, he burst into the mainstream with two songs — “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Both took aim at the counterculture, lampooning antiwar protesters as un-American layabouts; the latter tune even threatened violence against war resisters. Both were huge hits, each vying against the other for the top slot on the country charts and contending for Grammys.
The same year, he released “Working Man’s Blues.” This was a year in which workers’ movements all over the world demanded a more just economy, replete with better entitlements and expanded leisure time.
But according to “Working Man’s Blues,” to be a proud member of the working class was to be a dutiful employee, arriving to work on time in the morning, drinking beer in the evening, and denying the need for welfare all the while.
Linking working-class identity with a jingoistic fixation on American decline would remain Haggard’s favored songwriting strategy over the course of his career. He rode the wave of reactionary resentment and pro-war defensiveness of the late 1960s to national stardom and to the White House, where he played in 1973 for Pat Nixon’s birthday.
The 1970s and 1980s saw songs like “Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver),” “The Roots of My Raising,” and “The Way It Was Back in ’51” — all lamenting the supposed weakness of the new American temperament (reflected, apparently, in the weakness of the dollar).
In each of these songs, Haggard invited listeners to reminisce about a lost era of plenty. In Merle’s America (which he thought perished sometime around 1960), poor farmers could take out a bank loan on nothing more than a handshake and a smile.
These white-bread fantasies helped prime the pump for Ronald Reagan’s elections in 1980 and 1984. Reagan — who as governor of California pardoned an up-and-coming Haggard for an old robbery charge — enjoyed Haggard’s die-hard support during his entire political career. Haggard even advocated adding Reagan’s face to Mount Rushmore.
In 1990, with his moon on the wane, the singer appeared on national television with a new song — “Me and Crippled Soldiers” — a paranoid, red-faced stomper taking aim at flag-burners and drumming up support for the unpopular Gulf War.
It breathed some new life into his career, but his second time in the spotlight was short-lived. Three years later, a New York Times profile detailed Haggard’s beleaguered tour of small-town honky-tonk bars, including quotes from the singer about the East Coast (“like a war zone”) and immigrants (“people that can’t speak English, and they look like they’re starving and they’d take anything from you if they could”).
During the 2000s, Haggard moved in and out of the public eye, continuing to make endless hay off his blend of working-class rhetoric, political nostalgia, and paranoia.
Haggard always sang with a furrowed brow and lolling eyes. As a young man this habit seemed flirtatious, but as he aged it made him look paranoid and sad, perpetually puppy-dogging at every camera he encountered. For some, he seemed an end-times prophet of the waning era of American prosperity, talking straight and offering potent warnings of decline.
But in reality, he was just a run-of-the-mill conservative — for Merle, the keepers of the status quo were under constant attack, and he was a fierce defender of their privilege.
He was also a hypocrite, or maybe just confused.
In “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard scoffed at marijuana users, identifying the drug with the long-haired hippies who threatened to dilute the rough-and-tumble character of American men. Later, he became a daily pot smoker, likely because of his highly public friendship with Willie Nelson. (They even sang a song about it.)
In interviews, he waffled on the meanings of his own songs, amplifying his conservative message when the political winds were favorable and downplaying it when they weren’t.
But no amount of waffling could challenge the red-blooded conservatism of his some of his fans, including the contemporary country star Toby Keith, whose Iraq War–mongering sing-along “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” was inspired by Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
It’s a tragedy that Haggard adopted a regressive, individualistic politics of misplaced nostalgia. In other circumstances, his life experience might have guided him toward the opposite, toward a progressive politics of collective action.
The tragedy of Haggard is not unlike the tragedy of American capitalism — his life story reads like a history of the system’s failure.
Haggard was born to economic refugees during the Dust Bowl and grew up destitute in a boxcar in Oildale, California, a depressed refuge-of-last-resort for thousands of Okies who — like Haggard’s parents — fled their withered farms in America’s barren breadbasket to seek a better life on the West Coast. But of course, California prosperity never arrived, at least not for the Haggards. Merle went to prison at nineteen after an attempted robbery, only to find himself homeless and unemployable upon his release.
Throughout his career, Haggard was disdainful of the wealthy while showing fierce loyalty to the poor. But this led him toward bigotry, territorialism, and nostalgia. In the vain hope of reviving an imaginary epoch of hard work and big rewards, he defended the very forces that produce the poverty he lamented.
We can defend the millions of Americans — many of them poor, rural, and neglected — who find comfort and companionship in Merle Haggard’s music without defending Haggard himself, because we understand what Haggard didn’t: together we can build a just, prosperous world for the future, rather than simply imagining one in the past.