Merle Haggard and “Okie from Muskogee”

Jun 28, 2021

Liner notes for “Merle Haggard and ‘Okie from Muskogee’” in Hag: The Capitol Recordings 1968–1976 (Concepts, Live, and the Strangers), Bear Family Records

Originally published in 2007

Merle Haggard, for all his successes and hit records up to the fall of 1969, was just another country music star. A very successful country star, but just another star nonetheless. One song was to change all that and turn Merle Haggard into a household name: a simple little ditty called “Okie from Muskogee.”

Merle: “‘Okie from Muskogee’ is the song that changed my life.”

We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee
We don’t take our trips on LSD
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free

We don’t make a party out of lovin’
We like holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo
We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do

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’ is still the biggest thrill of all

Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear
Beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen
Football’s still the roughest thing on campus
And the kids here still respect the college dean

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’ is still the biggest thrill of all

We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse
In Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA

—Merle Haggard (and Eddie Burris), “Okie from Muskogee”

Merle had written the song in the summer of 1969 and began playing it live shortly thereafter. Everyone who heard it knew that it was a monster hit waiting to happen. According to steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, “The first time we played it, the audience just went crazy. We knew it was going to be huge.”

There couldn’t have been a better time to launch a song like “Okie from Muskogee” on the American public. The country was embroiled in divisive politics and was going through difficult cultural changes like no other time in its history.

The United States was, at the time, mired in a war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia that polarized the country. There were those who felt that America’s presence in Vietnam was an important battle of right versus wrong—that preventing the spread of Communism in far-flung locales was tantamount to preserving democracy at home. There were just as many others who felt that the Vietnam War was an exercise in futility, a confusing jungle conflict where enemy and ally were often one and the same. The people who opposed the war felt that the real reason the nation was in Vietnam was to fill the coffers of the defense industry, and that the hundreds of boys coming home in body bags every month was too high a price to pay.

For a nation that, at the time, thought of itself as invincible, the Vietnam War pitted a generation of veterans against young idealists, and most significantly for our discussion here, it seemed to pit rural people who considered themselves diehard patriots against city people who felt that the war was wrong, no matter what the government was saying. No one was happy with what was going on in Vietnam.

Merle: “It was like this. I’d just got out of prison, and I say that like ‘so what.’ Well, it was a big deal, I’d just got out of the joint, and I had my whole life before me, and I was scared, and I was on parole, and I walked into this condition in America that was like no time in history.”

In the midst of all this social and political change, three assassinations rocked the nation, coinciding with the ascent of Merle Haggard’s career from his earliest records to the release of “Okie from Muskogee.” President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in November 1963. His brother, presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, was assassinated in June 1968, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, making the decade one of the bloodiest in the nation’s history.

Merle: “If you look back on it now, it was a sad time for America. People were misinformed . . . and the government was lying to us. It was a time of deception. And yet I felt sure that those long haired hippies did not know any more about freedom than I did. Now if they’d been over to Vietnam, and come back, and had on a Vietnam jacket, and they had something to say, I’d listen to ‘em. But they hadn’t. None of ‘em had been anywhere. They hadn’t been to prison . . . they hadn’t been to Vietnam . . . and I found it really disturbing that they were against the American war.

“Whatever America was doing, for me at that time, I felt confident that it was the right thing. Well, the hippies didn’t believe in the war. I didn’t know why they didn’t believe in it, and I didn’t understand it, and it irritated me that somebody who’d walk around pissing their pants and looking up in the air with their mouth open . . . at the time, I thought it was caused by marijuana. Well, we know that isn’t the case. So I went on to have a different philosophy.”

As an ex-convict, Merle felt that hippies and left-wing radicals were demeaning the fabric of the country, a country that had given him a second chance and forgiven him for his crimes. Merle insisted in an interview with this author that he was dead serious when he wrote “Okie from Muskogee” and other politically charged numbers like “Fightin’ Side of Me.” But as time went on, Merle began to take an educated and unbiased look at his political views and personal beliefs.

Merle: “I was dumb as a rock, you know, I thought that the government told us the truth, and I thought that marijuana made you walk around with your mouth open. So when you write a song from that limited understanding, and have it become a hit, I was really in a whirlwind of change in America, and in my own way of thinking.

“‘Okie from Muskogee’ came off the wall, written in about ten minutes, and it came off the back side of my brain, and my heart. Because I was disturbed about young America. See, I was easing into my thirties, at that time, so I was pretty much out of here as far as the young people were concerned, and they were young kids that I was irritated with, and they were doing things that I thought were un-American. Well, it wasn’t un-American, they were smarter than me! Kids are always smarter than the old folks . . . they see through our bigotry and our hypocrisy. And I had a great lesson in life to learn, that they were already aware of.

“I believe history has proven them right. The Vietnam War was a hoax, the reason we went to war was a lie. . . . Maybe Communism was a threat, but that wasn’t why we were there.”

In the music world, massive changes had taken place during the 1960s. The decade had begun innocently enough, with all genres of music, from pop to country, essentially carrying on the innocent themes of the 1950s. When the Beatles came over from England in 1964, it was as if everything changed overnight. Suddenly music wasn’t about escape, release, and endless good times—it was now expected to be a harbinger of social change. With the turbulent times affecting everybody in the nation, it wasn’t long before the previously staid world of country music was affected by the same sort of social awareness that the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and others had brought into the world of rock.

It was a much different scenario in the country music world than it was in the rock and roll world, however. For the country western market, right-wing Republican was the norm, and few were willing to speak up for the liberal side of things, even if they felt differently. President Richard Nixon appeared on stage at the Grand Ol’ Opry, playing the piano and laughing with Roy Acuff. Records like “Ballad of Two Brothers” by Autry Inman and “Hello Vietnam” by Johnny Wright pulled on patriotic heartstrings and rallied support for the Vietnam War. In the deep South, “under the counter” records on the Reb-Rebel label were huge underground sellers, with records like “Nigger Hatin’ Me” by “Johnny Rebel,” “Cowboys and Niggers” by “James Crow,” and “A Victim of the Big Mess (Called the Great Society)” by the “Son of Mississippi.” These were essentially Southern country music “protest” records, the racist redneck equivalent of Country Joe McDonald strumming an acoustic guitar at Woodstock and talking about peace and love. The country music establishment had its own political views, and they weren’t about the peace and love bit one iota.

Johnny Cash was virtually the only country singer to speak for left-wing issues during this period, which didn’t exactly go over well with the country record-buying public. Cash tackled the treatment of American Indians, spoke up for prisoners, and recorded with Bob Dylan, all of which endeared him to hippies and left-wing liberals but hurt him for years with conservatives.

When Merle performs “Okie from Muskogee” now, he plays it off like a joke, and he has said in interviews over the years that it was a parody, or written from the perspective of his father, or only half-serious. It wasn’t. “Okie from Muskogee” was a statement, and, at least in fall 1969, Merle meant every word of it.

Merle: “I felt the opposite side of the knife. . . . I knew that I was standing up for something that was probably gonna cost me half my audience. It’s strange, all those people that were fans, people in the business, I didn’t even realize it at the time [but] we were really accepted in the rock and roll field. . . . We had songs in the pop charts. You know, Dean Martin was cuttin’ my records, and things like that. “Okie from Muskogee” took a big bite out of that because these people thought I was really down on marijuana, and that I was really as square as that song, and man . . . they dropped me like a hot potato.”

When “Okie from Muskogee” was released on August 15, 1969, it shot straight to the top of the country charts and to number forty-one on the pop charts. The song was a blockbuster in every sense of the word, and the best-known song Merle would ever release. People went wild when he performed it. There was little doubt that he would be performing “Okie from Muskogee” for the rest of his career.

The song was so popular that Merle included it on all three of his live albums, including the phenomenally successful Live in Muskogee album. In 1969 the Academy of Country Music (ACM) named it single of the year and song of the year. Live in Muskogee was album of the year, and Merle was voted top male vocalist. The following year, the CMA awards gave “Okie from Muskogee” their own song of the year award and Live in Muskogee album of the year, and Merle was voted both entertainer of the year and male vocalist of the year. “Okie from Muskogee” was so popular that Capitol re-released the single in 1972, using a live version taken from the live Philadelphia album. It was, quite simply, a phenomenon.

Incensed liberals immediately began pigeonholing Merle Haggard as a puppet of the right-wing conservative movement, feelings which were intensified by follow-up songs like “Fightin’ Side of Me,” the Vietnam POW anthem “I Wonder if They’ll Ever Think of Me,” and Merle’s performance for President Richard Nixon in 1973. Nearly a decade later Merle performed at a Ronald Reagan fundraiser, further fueling the fire. Parodies of “Okie from Muskogee” from the liberal point of view were written and recorded, such as “Asshole from El Paso” by Kinky Friedman and “Hippie from Olema #5” by the Youngbloods.

What many of the unhappy hippies didn’t realize was that Merle Haggard was nobody’s puppet. Merle may not have cared for the far left wing, but he also didn’t like neoconservatives. Alabama governor and independent right wing presidential candidate George Wallace asked Merle to endorse his 1972 bid for the White House, but Merle refused. Ex-Klansman-turned-politico David Duke asked Merle to do a private party, and Merle told him, in a colorful way, what he could do with his offer. Merle also discovered his own love of marijuana, stating in a 1974 Michigan newspaper interview “Muskogee is the only place I don’t smoke it.”

No one got to hear the song “Somewhere in Between,” either. Merle wrote the song in 1970 and recorded it twice, once in 1970 and again in 1971, but it has never seen the light of day until now. A song guaranteed to make neither side happy, it speaks Merle Haggard’s state of mind better than any press release ever did. While both the left-leaning hippies and the far-right rednecks wanted Merle to be something they had defined based on their own prejudices, Merle wasn’t about to be defined by anyone but himself. “Somewhere in Between” would have probably made the hippies madder and angered Merle’s core audience if it had been released at the time of its recording, but it would have shed a little light on the complex personality of Merle Haggard.

There’s a certain class of people who might venture out too far
There’s the common man who’s satisfied with things the way they are
There’s the acid-taking dopies with their minds eat up inside
But it takes all kinds to make the world so wide

I stand looking at the left wing, and I turn towards the right
And either side don’t look too good, examined under light
That’s just freedom of opinion, and their legal right to choose
That’s one right I hope we never lose

I stand somewhere in between divided wings
The liberal left, the narrow right, and the young of 17
And I’m not too old to understand the young who disagree
And it leaves me standing somewhere in between

We analyze the trouble that reflect the current times
While we’re searching with a question weighing heavy on our minds
And I haven’t heard an answer that’ll change things overnight
And that’s one thing I know for sure is right

And I stand somewhere in between divided wings
The liberal left, the narrow right, and the young of 17
And I’m not too old to understand the young who disagree
And it leaves me standing somewhere in between
It leaves me standing somewhere in between

—Merle Haggard, “Somewhere in Between” (revised lyrics, 1971)

In 1990 Merle released “Me and Crippled Soldiers,” an anti-flag-burning song, on his Blue Jungle album. More recently Merle has released a song called “America First,” which has the line “Let’s get out of Iraq, and get back on track,” and he has spoken up for blacklisted liberal pariahs the Dixie Chicks. Merle also has infuriated his conservative fan base with “Hillary,” a song that endorses Hillary Clinton for president in 2008. Haggard is a man who clearly doesn’t have a problem speaking his mind.

Liberals and conservatives alike should take another look at Merle Haggard. Merle may be a country boy without much formal education, but unlike many of his supporters and detractors who have doctorates or are in positions of power, Merle has listened to both sides, formed an opinion, spoken his mind, listened and learned more over the years, and (unafraid to contradict his own earlier positions) spoken his mind again—with fairness, regardless of whether anyone wanted to listen. In anyone’s book, this is the definition of an intelligent man.

Merle: “What went on in the evolution of America and the evolution of Merle Haggard is not what people would have expected.”