Merle Haggard: The Running Kind

Excerpted from Merle Haggard: The Running Kind by David Cantwell (Copyright © 2013 by David Cantwell) used by permission of the University of Texas Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. For more information visit


“Silver Wings”

Kansas City, Missouri, September 14, 2001

On the Friday after terrorist attacks murdered thousands, crashed four airliners, and reduced New York’s Twin Towers to rubble, Merle Haggard played a concert in Kansas City, Missouri. The instant he took the stage, he was pelted with requests demands, really that quickly coalesced into an impatient chant.

Fight! N! Side!

Fight! N! Side!

Fight! N! Side!

It went on and on like that, the fans yelling at the singer, for what seemed like forever. For his part, Merle had the look of a man who knew full well what it was going to be like this night but who was irritated and disappointed just the same when he found out he was right again. He sighed.

For just a second there, the Hag appeared not like a star at all, but like the old man he was, vulnerable and a little frail: At sixty-four, he was only half a decade or so beyond having had his arteries scraped clean by angioplasty. He looked small, too: Merle stands five-feet seven but needs cowboy boots to do it. Most of all, he looked world-weary and a little put out by all these people screaming at him, as if they really imagined they could order him around. Hadn’t they been paying attention to the words they’d been singing along with all these years? Not even his own mama had been able to tell Merle Haggard what to do.

Haggard shook his head slowly from side to side. And like so much else in his career, the gesture might have been interpreted in a number of ways. Was he telling the audience that he planned to play what he damned well pleased, no matter how aggressive their requests? Was he expressing disbelief at the audience’s enthusiasm for him, or disgust at his fans’ insistence upon a fightin’ side he seemed, just then, unable or unwilling to muster? Was he merely shaking loose the cobwebs of one more day spent staring out the window of his tour bus? Or was he maybe wishing he’d never stepped off it, longing instead to be back on board a Silver Eagle that was so small and known and comfortable that it felt like home sweet home but that felt like a prison cell, as well, and for the same reason?

Merle didn’t speak. He just leaned into the mike and started to sing:

Silver wings, shining in the sunlight

Roaring engines, headed somewhere in flight

They’re taking you away and leaving me lonely

Silver wings, slowly fading out of sight

It was a song he’d written a very long time ago, back in the late Sixties when it seemed every song Merle Haggard wrote became an instant country classic and this in an era when country records routinely shimmered with pop appeal and when not a few pop hits exploited a twang and fresh-air charm swiped from their country cousins. The song was “Silver Wings,” and in 1969 it had played B-side to his “Workin’ Man Blues” single, the hit that had provided him with something of a nom de plume in those final moments before another hit, “Okie from Muskogee,” became his new signature song and new identity. “Okie from Muskogee,” and its follow-up release, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” had freed Haggard forever from mere country stardom, while also chaining him tightly to an image he’d been fighting to live down ever since. Except, that is, whenever he made it a point to live up to it, in the process foiling yet again the expectations of anyone who’d have preferred he live it down. The only person who gets to be the boss of Merle Haggard is Merle Haggard.

Haggard didn’t leave the stage that night without performing “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” of course. But he did it only when he was ready and in the manner he wanted. This show’s version of “Fightin’ Side” didn’t threaten a “boot in yer ass,” in the “just-out-lookin’-for-a-fight” style of “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” the still-to-come Toby Keith hit that would soon serve as a “Fightin’ Side” for a new century. Merle’s “Fightin’ Side,” this night, was much more in the way of a heavy sigh, and a rolling up of the sleeves in order to tackle dirty but necessary work. And members of that evening’s audience (though not without a few to-be-expected exceptions) sang along in the same sober fashion Merle went out of his way to model. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests for this one this week,” he introduced the song. “We hadn’t had to play it for a very long time.” Another heavy sigh, and then: “Fortunately.”

“This country doesn’t need to be incited with ‘Fightin’ Side of Me,'” he explained to me a few weeks later when I asked him about what I’d seen. “It needs to know that we’re together, but it sure doesn’t need to be incited.”

On record all those years ago, Merle had sung the haunted lines of “Silver Wings” with an aching lilt, and had been backed by a doom-saying piano figure that sounded anguished and felt hopeless. Even so, thanks to the song’s relaxed melody and the record’s shimmering string arrangement, Merle had created a “Silver Wings” back then that felt openhearted and generous. That “Silver Wings” offered heartache at its just-loveliest. Tonight, though, Merle’s pretty images metal wings shining in sunlight all too reminiscent of Tuesday’s impossibly bright and blue sky sounded hideous. He sang the familiar words in a voice choked and dazed, like he might be about to throw up. The boisterous crowd, which had been spoiling for a fight only a moment before, was shamed silent and turned reverent in a breath. All that rage was pushed aside to reveal the tears and still-bleeding wound beneath.

He closed his show that night, as he so often has, with “Okie from Muskogee.” The crowd sang along with every word but sounded especially fierce and determined on the line “We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse” and on that word “proud.”

* * *

“I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee.”

Since he first sang those words, in 1969, Merle Haggard has enjoyed artistic and professional triumphs few can match. He’s charted more than one hundred country hits, including thirty-eight chart-toppers and seventy-one top tens. He’s acted in films and on television, entertained presidents and soberly appraised his nation from the cover of Time. He’s released dozens of studio albums and another half dozen or more live ones, performed upwards of ten thousand concerts, been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and seen his songs performed by everyone from Dean Martin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Elvis Costello, from Tammy Wynette and Willie Nelson to the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. In 2011 he was even feted, alongside Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey, as a Kennedy Center honoree. So you can’t blame the man for taking a lot of pride in what he’s accomplished. As he crowed in one song from the heady years just after “Okie from Muskogee” sent him down the road to becoming not only a star but an icon and even, momentarily, an American idol: “Lawd! Lawd! I’ve done it all!”

But so what? More than three decades on, Merle Haggard is best known, still, for one phrase, for one musically irresistible hook (love it or leave it, but try not to sing along!), for one politically charged, era-defining, and, as it’s played out, era-transcending declaration. He’s written hundreds of other songs, and dozens of those stone country classics, but today, when people beyond his core audience recognize the name Merle Haggard at all, it’s overwhelmingly for that one damned song. The Hag’s done it all, but he’s famous (“infamous,” some would charge) for a single ideologically loaded shotgun blast of what, from here in the twenty-first century, we can recognize as an early heartland rehearsal of identity politics, one early return of fire in what we now term the Culture War: “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee.”

* * *

In its first draft, the Culture War was called the Generation Gap, and that’s where I come in. I bought my very first 45 rpm record, “War” by Edwin Starr, in the summer of 1970, but the truth is I settled for “War” only because the store was out of my first choice, “The Fightin’ Side of Me” by Merle Haggard. I was just nine, so if I sensed any political tension between my favorites it was inchoate: I wanted both records because I thought both records sounded cool. I still do. The political contradictions became apparent to me soon enough, though. I grew up in an always hard-toiling blue-collar household, the rock ‘n’ soul son of a country-music-favoring father, himself a union man who worked his ass off every day for a plumbing and heating company, and my dad’s kitchen table talk about the hippies, “the blacks,” the Vietnam War, welfare, and, always, the struggle to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table was echoed in any number of Merle Haggard lyrics. I’ve been thinking about the ideas Haggard sings about ever since, seconding an argument here and rejecting others there but singing along with his indelible melodies either way. I’m not alone: As much as any American musical artist, and certainly as much as any country artist, Haggard, in his music, has intersected with the great issues of his times those surrounding class and race, war and peace, and, most of all, freedom.

This book is the attempt of this critic and more or less lifelong Merle Haggard fan at writing a monograph on the man’s music on the songs he’s written and, a key but too-often-elided distinction, the records he’s made. What it’s not is a biography of the man’s life. Haggard deserves a doorstop along the lines of what RJ Smith has written recently for James Brown or what Gary Giddens is doing for Bing Crosby (to choose artists I hear as of comparable significance to Haggard), but that tome will have to wait. Of course, the basic plot points of Haggard’s life get covered here. I’ve been fortunate to interview Haggard a few times over the years, and will quote some from our conversations, but for the bio bits I’ve relied almost exclusively on the many times Haggard’s already gone on record, at length, about his life: Most notably I’ve relied on his two autobiographies, the stylish Sing Me Back Home (from 1981, written with Peggy Russell) and the gussied-up transcription House of Memories (1999, with Tom Carter), plus a half dozen or so lengthy magazine profiles over the years, the 2010 documentary Learning to Live with Myself, and countless reviews and previews in daily and weekly periodicals stretching across forty years.

I’m much less interested in recounting Haggard’s life story for its own sake (that is, in trivia) than in engaging the character Haggard and his audience have created through the decades. What I hope to offer is strong-minded criticism close listening, in historical and social context, to one of the singular careers in American popular music. Haggard has, at least as of this writing, released a staggering eighty-plus albums (a total that nearly doubles if you count best-of sets and other anthologies), so what follows isn’t comprehensive many of my own favorite Haggard tracks don’t get so much as a mention in what follows. I am going to focus overwhelmingly on the first half of his career, roughly the middle 1960s through the middle 1980s, when Haggard created the bulk of his best music. I particularly want to look at that period in the late Sixties and early Seventies when his music mattered most widely and intensely and helped to invent the America we live in today. Let’s call that Merle’s Muskogee Moment, those years when Haggard’s work intersected with both the headlines and the pop charts, thanks mostly to his era-defining hit “Okie from Muskogee.”

At this point in his career, Merle Haggard is the Okie from Muskogee, a perception as prevalent among fans as detractors. So our first order of business is a reminder that the man known as “the Okie from Muskogee” is neither. Merle Haggard is not, as his image-defining anthem concluded, “from Muskogee, Oklahoma, U-S-A.” Strictly speaking, he isn’t even an Okie, not in the so-they-loaded-up-the-truck-and-they moved-to-Californy sense seared into our collective imaginations by John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath and John Ford’s film version of the novel from the following year; by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photography of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn; and by the Dust Bowl Ballads of Woody Guthrie.

Merle Haggard missed the migration so indelibly documented, and mythologized, by those earlier artists. His story skips the Exodus and begins in the Promised Land, which in his people’s version of the American Dream meant the San Joaquin Valley, county of Kern, in a little town (at the time, not much more really than a glorified Hooverville) called Oildale, situated just on the outskirts of the city of Bakersfield, California, U-S-A.

Historians have noted that the movement of southerners during the last century to the industrial cities of the north and to the corporate farms and oil fields of the west shares revealing parallels with the experiences of European immigrants to America. Both groups were viewed as unwelcome, not-quite-white outsiders. As both consequence of and contribution to that perception, they settled in tight-knit communities in a Little Italy, say, or a Little Oklahoma where the old country’s food ways, entertainment preferences, religious practices, and other customs to some degree persisted, providing continuity and comfort to displaced people, and where substantial quantities of emotional energy, not to mention one’s paycheck, remained devoted to the places and people left behind. Route 66 stands in the Dust Bowlers’ imagination as something akin to the place held by Ellis Island in European immigrant lore. Crowded labor camps were these migrants’ tenement slums. “Okie” was their Mick or Polack, wop or kike.

In the logic of this comparison, Merle Haggard isn’t an immigrant himself, but first-generation, a child of immigrants. And like fellow first-generation songwriters George and Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg (whose parents were Russian Jews), or like Jerome Kern and Sammy Cahn (the sons of German and Austrian Jews, respectively), Merle was born in the Promised Land to parents whose identity would forever be bound up with the Old Country.

Put another way, Haggard isn’t a latter-day Tom Joad, yanked from the silver screen and into America from the last reel of John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. He’s John Ford the artist son of immigrants (Irish, in the director’s case) who’s heard the ancestors’ stories of struggle and discrimination all his life, even been on the receiving end of some of that contempt, but who ultimately can only imagine the thrill and terror of creating a new life in a new land that, to him, isn’t new at all but just… home. And who then turns those imaginings into art.

I like this way of thinking about Haggard because it places him in the company he deserves not only with fellow legends of country music, but right alongside any and all contributors to our Great American Songbook, and shoulder-to-shoulder with Great American Artists, period. This perspective can aid us, too, in trying to unravel “Okie from Muskogee,” both in terms of the button-busting pride the song affirms in its bear hug of a particular identity and the deep ambivalence it betrays toward that identity. The song points straightforwardly to what Merle Haggard feels he shares with his parents as a birthright, but it also underscores the great distance he feels, inevitably, from their experience, separated as he is from it by so many years and miles, not to mention by the twists and turns of his very different life. When first uttered in 1969, “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” was itself evidence of that distance, of just how far Haggard had come. After all, in the years after his parents transplanted to the San Joaquin Valley that is, in the place and at the time their son would grow up, in the 1940s and 1950s if you’d called Merle an “Okie,” this future working-class hero likely wouldn’t have taken it as some folksy honorific. He probably wouldn’t have taken it at all, and might’ve even opted to kick your teeth in for a witty rejoinder.

A music critic and longtime Haggard fan, David Cantwell is coauthor of the acclaimed Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, and his work has appeared in the Oxford American, Salon, and No Depression, among other publications.