Something for the weekend. The Fightin’ Side of Me.
When I was growing up in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the radio station in Paris, Illinois, WPRS, “1400 on the AM dial”, my generation often referred to it as World’s Poorest Radio Station, had a country and western format. As a result, I often woke up to the strains, from the radio in the kitchen where my parents were having breakfast, of Merle Haggard. As a result I often woke up to the strains, from the radio in the kitchen where my parents were having breakfast, of Merle Haggard.
A son of the great Okie diaspora to California during the Great Depression, Haggard was born in Bakersfield, California in 1937. Life for his family was a struggle after his father died in 1945. Growing up he was constantly in trouble, and by his 21rst birthday he was a convicted felon for having attempted to rob a roadhouse, and was serving time in San Quentin. A concert by Johnny Cash inspired him to join the prison band. He was released on parole in 1960. (Governor Reagan granted him a full pardon in 1972.) He began performing as a guitarist and fiddle player, quickly becoming a fixture of what became known as the Bakersfield Sound, performers in and around Bakersfield, California producing a fusion of country music and rock. Haggard first came to prominence performing songs written by Liz Anderson, mother of country and western singer Lynn Anderson.
In 1969 Haggard suddenly found himself the voice of what President Nixon called the Silent Majority. A fairly apolitical man, Haggard was disturbed by the counterculture, and his Okie From Muskogee, an idealized look at an Oklahoma life that he had never experienced, became a giant hit.
His song The Fightin’ Side of Me (1970) caused conservatives to regard him as on their side. This was incorrect. Haggard did not follow politics closely, and his own views could be described very,very roughly as libertarian/populist, although that probably gives him too much credit for consistency.
He always had great respect for our military as demonstrated in his song, I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me (1972):
In 1989 after the Supreme Court ruled that flag burning was constitutionally protected, he angrily wrote the song Only Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn:
With this history it is understandable why conservatives felt betrayed when a now elderly Haggard made statements against the Iraq War and came out against what he perceived as unfair criticism of President Obama in 2010 after Haggard was honored at the White House as a Kennedy Center honoree. However, Haggard had never been part of the conservative political movement and had always been essentially a performer whose views reflected a fairly non-observant take on the historical events he was living through. Expecting him to remain consistent in those views over four and a half decades would have required a well thought out set of beliefs regarding the government and the country, and a cursory look at the statements of Haggard over time when he ventured to make statements on current events indicated that he never had such a set of beliefs but rather adopted a fairly ad hoc reaction to what was going on at any particular time.
As for his personal life, Haggard followed the usual path of self-destruction of too many artists: alcoholism, drug abuse, five marriages. In an interview with CNN in 2012 on his 75th birthday he said that he regarded himself as blessed: I believe in the heavenly Father, and if he is not there, then there is somebody disguising himself and answering my prayers. I am a deeply religious man, and I believe that if you give it half a shot, that he will help you. And he certainly has me. Let us hope that faith stood him in good stead this week as he stood before the God he had loved in life, although followed very imperfectly.