Friday, May 12, 2006


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 12, 2006

Some people are surprised by “America First,” a tune from Merle Haggard’s latest album, Chicago Wind (released last October), where Hag declares the need to “liberate these United States; we’re the ones who need it the worst,” and “Freedom is stuck in reverse/Let’s get out of Iraq and get back on the track/And let’s rebuild America first.”

For that matter, some were surprised that Haggard would tour with Bob Dylan. After all, the Okie from Muskogee was supposed to be the grand bard of the right wing. Hippies and squirrelly guys who don’t believe in fightin’ ought to love it or leave it, according to some of Hag’s most notorious songs. What’s the guy who sang “Fightin’ Side of Me” doing now, talking like a liberal and hanging out with that guy who wrote all those subversive songs like “Masters of War” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”?

Well, for one thing, for most of his five-decade career, Haggard has delighted in surprising people. To paraphrase one old song, he wears his own kind of hat. The singer’s politics are and always have been a lot more complex than people give him credit for. In another song on Chicago Wind, “Where’s the Freedom,” he bemoans the fact that schools and governments can’t display the 10 commandments — as well as the fact that people can’t afford gasoline.

We’ve known Merle is no partisan hack since at least 1981, with “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver).” Here he sings about how Nixon — who years before had embraced Haggard at a White House command performance — “lied to us all on TV.”

And two years before “America First,” Hag, on his song “That’s the News,” cast a cynical eye on President Bush declaring “mission accomplished” in Iraq.

In reality Haggard’s always been more tolerant of those with different opinions and lifestyles than he shows on “Okie” or “Fightin’ Side.”

Some important clues can be found on Hag/Someday We’ll Look Back, a couple of albums recently released as a single CD. Hag includes the touching song “The Farmer’s Daughter.” It’s about a farmer who’s accepting his city-boy son-in-law even though “his hair’s a little longer than we’re used to.”

But while that song has the spirit of reconciliation, on the next tune, “I’ve Done it All,” he sings “I’ve even been to ’Frisco wearing regular clothes/Felt them modern hippie folks starin’ down their nose.”

But note that he’s not claiming the “hippie folks” tried to make him take a trip on LSD or burned a flag in his face. No, their offense was their elitism, looking down at a working-class guy.

The greatest country album, ever. Before going on with this discussion, I have to declare an extreme prejudice here. I believe in my heart that Someday We’ll Look Back is not only Merle Haggard’s greatest album, but the greatest album in country-music history, bar none.

Hag’s voice is at full power, and The Strangers (curiously and inexcusably uncredited individually on this reissue) prove why they’re considered among the finest C&W units ever.

Someday features masterful country existential-angst songs like Roger Miller’s “Train of Life”; love songs including The George Jones-worthy “One Sweet Hello” and “I’d Rather Be Gone”; and the bleak but beautiful “Carolyn,” (written by Bakersfield titan Tommy Collins), where you can’t tell if the singer is warning his wife that he’s considering adultery or if he’s confessing in a backhanded way.

There are a couple of cheeky humorous numbers like “The Only Trouble With Me” (the rest of that sentence being “is you”) and the prison tune “Huntsville,” which ain’t “Mama Tried” but is still pretty cool.

And there are all these tough and gritty Steinbeckian Dust Bowl ballads where Haggard sounds more in touch with that old lefty Woody Guthrie than Dylan ever did in songs like “Tulare Dust,” “One Row at a Time,” and Dallas Frazier’s “California Cottonfields”: “Our Model A was loaded down and California-bound/And a change of luck was just four days away/But the only change that I remember seeing in my daddy/was when his dark hair turned to silver gray.”

Big Time Annie’s Square: “Big Time Annie’s Square” was one song on Someday We’ll Look Back that proved Haggard wasn’t the hippie-hating redneck many thought he was. Although this track is almost a throwaway compared with some of the others on the album, at the time it came out, I considered it sort of an apology for “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” It’s about an Okie soldier who comes back from Vietnam to find his Tulsa girl moved to “some town in California called ‘San something’ somewhere close to East L.A.” He discovers Annie has become one of them hippies. He’s wary. He’s “heard about those sugar cubes before I ever came to find her there.”

“We don’t agree on nothin’, but I’ll be damned if we don’t make a pair,” he sings. And he’s “glad to be accepted” by Annie’s strange new associates.

Big Time Annie’s friends: Indeed, not all the “hippie folk” looked down their collective nose at him. Gram Parsons, who did a wonderful version of “California Cottonfields,” actually tried back in the eao get Haggard to produce one of his albums.

The Grateful Dead did "Mama Tried." Every local country-rock outfit in the country played "Silver Wings."

One of the finest hippie Hag tributes was “I’ll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle,” written by Nick Gravenites. It was originally recorded by the post-Janis Big Brother and the Holding Company, though the better-known version is by Pure Prairie League. It’s a fantasy in which a hippie offers to help “the greatest country singer alive.”

“You’re a honky I know/But Merle, you’ve got soul.”

Hag said it best: Haggard’s attitude toward all of this perhaps was best expressed when I saw him in concert about 10 years ago. He began singing one of his best-known songs. “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee ...” The crowd went wild. But Haggard stopped the song. “Now who really gives a damn whether or not they smoke marijuana in Muskogee?” he said.

The crowd went even wilder

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