My involvement in Merle Haggard's music goes back to the early '70s, in my late teen years, and encompasses a sweeping range of attitude, from fierce dislike in the earliest years to unparalleled respect and appreciation the whole rest of the time.
Hard-country troubadour Haggard, 78, will be wrapping up the four-day Nelsonville Music Festival Sunday at 6 p.m. on the Main Stage.
From what I can remember, my first thoughts about Merle Haggard were prompted by these lyrics to "Okie From Muskogee," Haggard's overtly political hit from 1969:
We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take no trips on LSD
We don't burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin' right, and bein' free.
I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all.
Then not long after, Haggard recorded "The Fightin' Side of Me," with these lyrics:
I read about some squirrely guy,
Who claims, he just don't believe in fightin'.
An' I wonder just how long,
The rest of us can count on bein' free.
They love our milk an' honey,
But they preach about some other way of livin'.
When they're runnin' down my country, hoss,
They're walkin' on the fightin' side of me.
Around that time, I was a committed Dead Head, an ardent (are there any other kind?) follower of the essential psychedelic hippie band, the Grateful Dead. I sympathized with the Dead's philosophy of peace, love and getting high, and was 100 percent against the war in Vietnam. So, Haggard's redneck anthems just pissed me off.
In the years since, I've read some background on those songs, and while no doubt Haggard believed in what he was saying, he also was creating a character portrait of a typical working-class white guy. At the same time, too, Haggard identified deeply with working-class folks who thought "the man" was screwing them. He wasn't a Marxist, but he wasn't an establishment Republican either.
At this time, in the early '70s, Haggard's hit songs were increasingly being covered by rock 'n roll, country-rock and folk musicians - from the Dead to Joan Baez to the Everly Brothers to the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, as well as every country-rock bar band in America. I can't count the number of bands I heard cover "White Line Fever" and "Sing Me Back Home" through the '70s and into the early '80s.
Hearing those great songs covered by leftfield rock and folk musicians helped drag me into the Merle Haggard fold, and on a broader basis, started my life-long love for hard country music, including the Bakersfield sound popularized by Haggard and Buck Owens.
In the dorms at Ohio University during the mid'70s, my pals and I usually had a Merle Haggard album cued up on the same turntable as the Burritos and New Riders, and one we kept going back to was Haggard's 1969 live concert album, "Okie From Muskogee," recorded in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
I recall falling in love with Haggard's bittersweet 1973 ballad, "If We Make it Through December," one Christmas break from OU while I was working a truck-loading gig in a food warehouse in Mogadore, Ohio. It was an all-white Teamster shop, and I was a short-term non-union kid whom they'd hide in the back of a truck whenever the scary Teamster Local union steward, Vinnie Scarpetti (yes, really), came to inspect the loading docks.
WSLR ("Whistler") Radio in Akron, usually deejayed by the legendary "Jaybird," played the monster-hit "…December" every hour or two during that time, and every time I heard it on the radio, I'd get a lump in my throat and briefly forget my fears of ending up like Jimmy Hoffa, a pair of cement galoshes anchoring my warehouse scab ass to the bottom of the toxic-foamy Cuyahoga River.
A few years later, a close college friend and I, while home for summer break, attended a double-bill at the old Akron Civic Theater featuring Haggard and Dolly Parton. Tom and I showed up in our OU student country-rock hipster uniform of jeans, cowboy boots and flannel shirt - the aroma of reefer wafting from our threads. We found ourselves distinctly conspicuous sitting in a packed audience of hillbilly transplants from Appalachia, most of them dressed in tuxedos and gowns.
It was a great show, and nobody gave us a hard time, even though nobody in the audience looked (or smelled) even remotely like us. That might have been the moment when I recognized that there's a point at which you're doing something so impossibly unhip that it gets alchemized into something profoundly cool.
Whatever the case, I've always reserved a big part of my musical appreciation for traditional and hardcore country music, and even managed to expand an early purist sensibility to appreciate much of the heavily produced country of the '60s and '70s.
My most recent Merle Haggard jag came a year or two ago, when woefully tardy, I finally got my hands on two classic early Merle Haggard albums, his first, "Strangers" (1965), and his third, with the Strangers, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" (1967). Great, great albums that I missed during my early Haggard fandom.
Some of the songs on those and other early Haggard albums are eternal country classics, including "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," "Life in Prison" (covered by the Byrds on "Sweetheart of the Rodeo"), "Sing Me Back Home," "Branded Man," "Mama Tried," "Silver Wings," "The Bottle Let Me Down" (covered by Emmylou Harris), "White Line Fever" (covered by every country-rock group in history) and many more.
As an added bit of gravy, Merle Haggard also occasionally would record some sizzling western swing, which I always appreciated.
I'll end this with a special plea… During your show Sunday, Merle, devote a bit of time to full renditions of some of your classics. Medleys are OK, but they're no replacement for the whole song.