Merle Haggard, Hippie Icon?

by Steve Heilig, April 14, 2016

Merle Haggard died last week, up in his beloved Mount Shasta region, on his 79th birthday. His son Ben wrote this online:

"A week ago dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn't wrong. A hour ago he took his last breath surrounded by family and friends. He loved everything about life and he loved that everyone of you gave him a chance with his music. He wasn't just a country singer. He was the best country singer that ever lived."

The best that ever? Some would argue that there are five or so others who would also fit on that throne. I'm no country music expert, not even a huge fan overall, but I'll go with Merle, for his instantly-recognizable baritone voice, unsurpassed songwriting, supple guitar, authentic outlaw history, and, as I'm a west coast chauvinist, his California roots and lifelong loyalty. There was nothing corny or phony about him, and he seemed to always do exactly what he wanted to, musically and otherwise.

On top of all that, as much as the more flamboyant, long-haired and willing pot icon Willie Nelson, Haggard seemed to have been at heart a hippie. But strictly a "Hag" kind of countercultural figure, one like nobody else.

HippieHaggard

His life story is well known — born to parents who fled west to California from the dust bowl, raised in a converted boxcar in the Bakersfield area of the Central Valley, jailed as a teenager for burglary. As one of his signature tunes, "Mama Tried," related, "I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole."

Fortunately, while the birthday setting was true, the life sentence part was poetic license. And prison sent him on his musical path. While "inside" San Quentin in Marin in 1960 he heard one of Johnny Cash's early prison concerts and vowed to become a country singer and player himself, soon starting to play live and record, releasing his first LP in 1965, and the rest was country music history. Haggard had 38 #1 country hits and many more in the top ten of that tradition-bound chart. But as the New York Times put it in one of his many obituaries this week, titled "The Archetypal Outlaw,” even with such success, Haggard "was always an outsider — and his band was always named The Strangers."

For those who didn't care for it and/or saw country music as unredeemably square, Haggard's big breakthrough (and, some would say, debacle) came in 1969 with his song "Okie from Muskogee," an assault on San Francisco's burgeoning "counterculture" and all things hippie — LSD, pot, free love, draft card burning, incense, beads, long hair and "roman sandals"(?). It was a huge hit. But it was also hard to tell (and for a long time he wouldn't), how far Haggard's tongue was lodged in his cheek when he wrote and sang that one. Was he mostly pandering to the Southern rednecks he seemed to be celebrating? He did at times through his career lean that way, with embraces of some of the more reactionary aspects of life and even the likes of Nixon and Reagan. But he also later noted his big hit "probably set my career back about 40 years" and that "I was dumb as a rock" when he wrote it.

The musical reaction from the so-called "counterculture" being lampooned was, well, humorous. Big Brother and the Holding Company, the San Francisco band that had backed Janis Joplin, had a minor hit on their first LP after her death with "I'll Change Your Flat Tire Merle,” a response to Haggard, fiddles and all. The lyrics bear full reprint:

As I drove down on 65, I was cruisin' down that old grapevine

Well, I must have been doin' at least about 95

Well out there on the side of the road all broke down

Who do you think was standin' around

But the greatest country singer alive!

Well I hear you had an adventurous youth, makin' love in a telephone booth

And I even hear you did a little stretch in jail

But now you got a big ranch house with a bar

And eight, nine, ten of them fancy cars

And every other little check comin' in the mail

I'll fix your flat tire Merle

Don't ya get your sweet country pickin' fingers all covered with erl

Cause you're a honky, I know, but Merle you got soul

And I'll fix your flat tire Merle

Now I heard all them records ya did, makin' fun of us long haired kids

And now ya know we don't care what ya think... Merle,

If you're gonna call the world your home

Ya know you're gonna have to get out and get stoned

An' it's better with a joint than with a drink, I think

So I'll fix your flat tire Merle

Don't ya get your sweet country pickin' fingers all covered with erl

Cause you're a honky, I know, but Merle you got soul

And I'll fix your flat tire Merle

So I'll fix your flat tire Merle.

Note that even these hippies who were striking back at him called Merle the greatest. Another very popular group, the Youngbloods, led by sweet-voiced Jesse Colin Young and ensconced commune-style in West Marin, chimed in with "Hippie from Olema" (Olema being a crossroads village of about 50 citizens and a gateway to Point Reyes):

Well I'm proud to be a hippie from Olema

Where we’re friendly to the squares and all the straights

We still take in strangers if they’re ragged

We can’t think of anyone to hate

We don’t watch commercials in Olema

We don’t buy the plastic crap they sell

We still wear our hair long like folks used to

And we bathe often, therefore we don’t smell

We don’t throw our beer cans on the highway

We don’t slide a man because he’s black

We don’t spill our oil out in the ocean

’Cause we love birds and fish too much for that

And I’m proud to be a hippie from Olema

Where we’re friendly to the squares and all the straights

We still take in strangers if they’re Haggard

In Olema, California, planet earth.

Both of these tunes can be heard on youtube, and are worth a listen. But other rockers just did Haggard songs in sincere tribute; soon enough, the ultimate hippie band, the Grateful Dead, were making his songs a regular part of their countless 1970s concerts, especially "Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home," his wrenching death row lament. Haggard may not have commented on their versions but he must have enjoyed the royalty checks, if those were paid ("Texas Jewboy" troubadour Kinky Friedman's revision of "Okie" as "Asshole from El Paso" was a a bit more pointed in rebuke).

The opening line of "Okie" was "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee…" and that would get a big cheer in live performances. And that may have been true in Oklahoma, at least at the time. But those who knew or at least encountered the singer had to smile. At least in his later years, Haggard was no pot-teetotaler; he just was more private about it than his buddy Willie Nelson, until one of his last public songs and video, done with Willie, featuring them amiably passing a reefer in the studio while singing a sweet tune titled "It's all Going to Pot."

And in the late 1990s, Haggard did a San Francisco benefit show for the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics, which hads roots as the ultimate hippie medical provider. Outside the building where his touring bus was parked, it smelled like Golden Gate Park's "Hippie HIll" on April 20th ("4/20,” the pot smokers' favorite holiday).

Haggard sat on a stool, in air reeking of reefer and cooling down after a wonderful set with his current Strangers. "Medical Marijuana" had recently been legalized in California, and there were fliers and stickers strewn around the backstage area extolling and marketing the herb. Haggard picked one up and read, eyebrow raised, and then looked up and said "Y'all call it 'medical' pot here? Well...that's a hoot." There was silence for a moment, so I waded in and replied, "Yeah, I agree, but many sick folks says it makes them feel better, however you wanna call it, right?" Haggard, reportedly not one to suffer any fools, looked thoughtful for a second, and came back with "OK, you put it that way, good enough for me."

Beyond the pot thing, Haggard seem to go from being reactionary to more "liberal" with age, in reversal of the traditional trajectory. Besides the smoking, he embraced environmentalism, detested pomposity and greed, and seemed to become a pacifist as well. Although "Okie" had been written at least in part in reaction to anti-Vietnam protests, he opposed the venal Iraq war and in his later years became a Hillary Clinton supporter and wrote a song for Barack Obama's presidential campaigns. As for current aspirants, Haggard recently noted he was "watching Donald Trump's campaign with amusement and concern," and further noted, "I think he's dealing from a strange deck."

One of very best of Haggard's musical progeny, Dave Alvin, last week noted "Merle Haggard meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people but to me he was THE songwriter of California. Not the California of Malibu, Silicon Valley or Beverly Hills but the California of Highway 99, migrant workers and the struggle to survive in the promised land. All the political ambiguity and one dimensional stereotypes aside, Mr. Haggard was one of the giants of modern American Music (not just Country)… In his way he was also a true, fearless rock and roll rebel."

Beyond his own dozens of records, there have been numerous Haggard tribute albums through the years, featuring all the best country stars, but maybe be the best was the 1994 "songwriters's tribute" Tulare Dust, featuring many of the best younger "Americana" artists like Alvin, Iris Dement, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, John Doe, and more. Many of them gathered at the Fillmore West (another hippie hangout) when that CD was released, and did the songs beautifully and reverentially. But when Haggard himself stepped out to close the show, it was immediately clear who was the main event. "Oh so now we see how these songs really are done," said a lovely woman standing next to me.

Because, Haggard knew of which he wrote, from poverty to prison to stardom to bankruptcy in his later years, and you could hear all that in his songs and singing. Even though he'd been given just about every musical award one could earn, his dark side remained. "There've been times when I've been on the brink of closing down and walking away, disappearing into the woods," he reflected in 1999. Fortunately, he didn't do that until now, and made some great music even after that. He was a legend, and a charmer, contradictions and all, and his sound and sly smile will live on.

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