Merle Haggard often gets name-checked in contemporary country songs. It’s a quick way to tip a hat to tradition and add a helping of honky-tonk cred. Haggard’s 41 No. 1 country hits and place in country’s Mount Rushmore aside, his name personifies the hard life that was once synonymous with the genre.
Prison sentences, multiple divorces, dust-ups with fellow musicians, drinking and drug abuse—Haggard’s lived it all and spun his misfortunes into some of the greatest songs of the last 40-plus years.
To celebrate his birthday today, Merle recalls the inspiration behind his polarizing 1969 anthem, “Okie From Muskogee”:
“When I came out of prison in 1960, about four or five years went by. The Beatles and the hippies seemed to come together. They were children to me. These teenagers were running around the country looking up in the air with their mouths open, and I thought marijuana was doing that. It wasn’t marijuana. It was LSD and a lot of other things. I was disgusted with the younger set because of their lack of knowledge about Vietnam, and their obvious unappreciation of freedom. They were bitching about everything. I had been in prison and appreciated being free. America was such a wonderful place, and here these kids were bitching about it. It irritated me.
“So I was driving Interstate 40 and saw a sign that said ‘19 miles to Muskogee.’ Muskogee had been a place that I’d heard about all my life. My family was from there. And I thought, ‘You know, I bet they don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.’ I was wrong, they did. I thought marijuana was a terrible drug, capable of driving people crazy. It wasn’t. It was more the attitude that derives from hard drugs. If they hadn’t made it illegal, it would’ve went away with the hippies.
“A lot of conservative people tried to latch onto the song for their own use or gain. [Former governor of Alabama] George Wallace, [former Grand Wizard of the KKK] David Duke. I told Duke to f–k off. The funniest thing that’s happened over the years is that everybody who was against the song has come over to my side of thinking about it. They understand it now.”
—From Performing Songwriter Issue 104, Sept/Oct 2007
Category: Behind The Song