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Merle Haggard Showed Us What Freedom Means


Russell Kirk once said we cannot improve society by setting fire to it but, rather, that we need to seek old virtues and bring them back into the light. For such a profound insight, Kirk did very little to make “old virtues” new, attractive, or interesting. Outside of my insular circle of think tank nerds and stodgy traditionalists, I don’t imagine many people continue to read Kirk.

Country music, in contrast, continues to be a bastion of conservativism, and one with broad general appeal in an age where it is patently uncool to hold any opinions outside of the progressive orthodoxy. Unlike other popular music genres, however, country music has never been about being cool. Even the terrible pop-country being churned out by Nashville nowadays can’t completely extinguish the sense that country music is a popular art form made for those of us who adhere more to traditional values than to new fashions.

The reason country music continues to be one of the few—perhaps the only—popular culture art form where conservatives thrive goes back to the golden age of country, when the stars had strange nicknames like “The Possum,” “Bocephus,” and “Hoss.”

Perhaps the greatest of them all was “Hag,” Merle Haggard, who passed away on April 6 at the age of 79. I was first introduced to Mighty Merle as a toddler. My dad was a connoisseur of old country music and wanted to name me either Merle or Waylon. My mother, a much more practical lady of Jewish descent, was horrified by the sound of those names and promptly vetoed them, explaining that my father could still instill his appreciation for country music without cursing me with a hick name.

My dad relented, but he also took her at her word. By the age of three, my dad often boasts, I knew the difference between all the greats: Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. My appreciation of classic country has continued to grow.

An Okie from Muskogee

Merle’s greatest song is probably the 1969 hit “Okie from Muskogee.” It was the height of the ’60s counterculture and, in it, he summarily impugns the hippy movement that was gripping America’s youth. Merle disparages the drug users, the shaggy hair and beads, the draft dodgers and the sexual libertines. Most importantly, though, “Okie from Muskogee” had a refrain with a certain undeniable defiance—and even pride:

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’s still the biggest thrill of all

Merle, who was originally from Oklahoma, was proud of the traditional values he held, even if they were not in fashion. That same year Merle released another hit song, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which struck an even more defiant tone. In one verse, he scorns the pacifists who enjoy American prosperity without the courage to fight for liberty:

I read about some squirrely guy,
Who claims, he just don’t believe in fightin’.
An’ I wonder just how long,
The rest of us can count on bein’ free.
They love our milk an’ honey,
But they preach about some other way of livin’.
When they’re runnin’ down my country, hoss,
They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.

Wisdom from Living Hard in a Free Country

Merle was clearly a conservative—but he wasn’t just some stodgy old traditionalist, promoting tradition for its own sake. He had real street cred. He was inspired to make a career in country music during a stint in California’s San Quinten Penitentiary, where he was serving time for armed robbery. In 1958, Johnny Cash famously played a gig there and Merle said the performance motivated him to start his first country music band.

Haggard’s music is marked by the sort of authenticity that seems more and more rare nowadays, even in country music.

If nothing else, Haggard’s music is marked by the sort of authenticity that seems more and more rare nowadays, even in country music. His verses are filled with the sort of wisdom that only comes from living hard in a free country where he was able to make lots of choices—some good and some very bad.

Even on the songs that weren’t so overtly heralding traditional conservative values, his principles were clearly in line with an older, better American culture. On the “Okie from Muskogee” album he also released the song “Mama Tried,” a lament about a sweet, hardworking single mother who tried, but ultimately failed, to steer a wayward young son away from crime.

The refrain is “And I turned twenty-one in prison doing life without parole / No one could steer me right but Mama tried, Mama tried / Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied / That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.” In an age where people are quick to blame criminal behavior on “systems of oppression” or “inequality,” Haggard’s songs exude a refreshing emphasis on personal responsibility.

Pay It Forward

I credit classic country, and Haggard especially, for helping me to avoid the progressivism nonsense that permeates our culture nowadays. I’m a Jewish guy with an English degree from New York University who served in the Peace Corps, so it might seem natural to predict that I might have turned out a flaming progressive. I think my deep appreciation for classic country music is one of the reasons I never really bought into leftist ideologies.

I credit classic country, and Haggard especially, for helping me to avoid the progressivism nonsense that permeates our culture nowadays.

I’m not the only one inspired by Haggard’s everyday man’s brand of conservatism. In 1972, then-governor Ronald Reagan granted Merle a full pardon for his crimes.

I wish I could make some grand gesture, like Reagan did, to show how important Merle’s music has been for me. I guess I will have to be content to pass on an appreciation for classic country music like my dad did for me. After all, in my experience, it is a great way to inoculate young people against the toxic culture that grew out of the ’60s and 70’s.

I’m working on it. My wife vetoed the names Waylon and Merle for our son (much like my mother did for me a generation ago). But my wife did let me name him Hank. Hank is four, and he loves classic country. “Okie from Muskogee” is among the songs that will be in heavy rotation for a while at home (much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of my poor wife). Hopefully, through songs like that Hank will feel the same pride about traditional conservative values that I do.

RIP, Merle.