In late 1969 and early 1970, when “Okie From Muskogee” was blaring from every jukebox in every beer joint, truck stop and restaurant in my hometown, San Antonio, I wanted, sometimes very much, to hate Merle Haggard.
I say blaring because that’s the kind of record “Okie” was. The kind that, when it dropped into place on an automated turntable or crackled from the speakers of an AM radio, you wanted to turn it up.
Well, not me. I was pretty much a rock-and-folk guy, but this was Texas at the height of the Vietnam War, and San Antonio was a military town boasting five Air Force bases and an Army post, so I’m pretty certain I was in the minority.
There were kids in my high school who took pride in listening to nothing but country music. Whether Hag intended it or not, his blue-collar anthem became a battle cry for Vietnam-bound working-class youths with a snowball’s chance in Saigon of a student deferment. Music to kick some hippie butt by.
I, on the other hand, was an easy target, a skinny kid who couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do,” Hag sang. So it didn’t help that I wore my hair in a ponytail halfway down my back, and it only partially obscured the embroidered flag patch that my girlfriend had sewnupside down on my military surplus jacket.
I mean, I listened to some country music myself: Buck Owens was played on the same stations as the Beatles in South Texas, and I never missed “The Johnny Cash Show,” but the records in heaviest rotation on my changer were “Let It Bleed,” “Abbey Road,” “Crosby, Stills & Nash,” and I’m fairly certain that when I lost my virginity, “Led Zeppelin II” was the soundtrack. But whenever I got my butt kicked, which was a lot — in between the thud of cowboy boots slamming into my ribs as I rolled myself up into a ball like an armadillo to protect my vitals — there was only one song that I heard in my head. So, like I said, I tried hard to hate Merle Haggard.
But I couldn’t. He was simply too damn good.
Merle Haggard was, undeniably, a great singer, some say the best that country music has ever produced. But it was the songs that got me. When I discovered, at an early age, what that line in parentheses beneath the title of a record meant, as in (Jagger/Richards) or (Dylan), I immediately attempted to write songs of my own. By ’69 the deceptively sophisticated chord structures of Haggard songs like “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “Mama Tried” and “Silver Wings” were not lost on me. To my ear they had more in common with the work of John Lennon and Paul McCartney (you can imagine the early Beatles playing “Mama Tried”) or Paul Simon than anything else I heard on the country radio stations.
So I just kept listening and pretended that was some other singer on the jukebox singing about “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Denial, I suppose, was as close to transcendence as my teenage self was going to get. I kept writing, and it would be many years and a couple of hundred songs later before I realized that, maybe, sometimes the songwriter is not always the same person as the characters he or she creates. And Merle Haggard’s songs were nothing if not transcendent.