“It is a character study,” Haggard said in his American Songwriter interview, then revealing that his 1969 self was the character. “It was the photograph that I took of the way things looked through the eyes of a fool. I was just as dumb as a rock at about that time, and most of America was under the same assumptions I was.
“As it’s stayed around now for 40 years, I sing the song now with a different attitude onstage. If you use that song now, it’s a really good snapshot of how dumb we were in the past. They had me fooled, too. I’ve become educated. I think one of the bigger mistakes politicians do is to get embarrassed when somebody catches them changing their opinion. God, what if they learned the truth since they expressed themselves in the past? I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now. I still believed in America then. I don’t know that I do [believe] now.”
In between “Sing a Sad Song” and “Okie,” there was a near-constant stream of creative activity for Haggard. Fuzzy Owen worked as Haggard’s manager, and he and Lewis Talley released a Top 10 Haggard single called “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” and that Liz Anderson-penned song hit country music’s Top 10 in the same 1965 week that Buck Owens’ “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail”—recorded on the west coast and released on L.A.-based Capitol—was in the top spot. Left-coast country was hitting national airwaves with snarl and twang that were lacking from many Nashville recordings, and Capitol had the funds and the interest to sign Haggard away from Tally. As his star rose, he wrote at a frenetic pace, sometimes scribbling lyrics by hand but often asking his then-wife, Bonnie Owens, to take his rhyming dictation.
“Sometimes the songs got to coming too fast for me to write, and sometimes they still do,” he said. “So if I had a lady with me that I trusted, I’d have her write. Bonnie grabbed a lot of stuff that I might have missed. I just want ‘em to write down what I say, not to critique it. Just get it down the way that looks impressive to me, before I lose it. A real good pencil lady is real good to have around.”
In 1966, Haggard recorded his first No. 1 country hit, Liz and Casey Anderson’s “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive.” That song’s recording found Haggard arriving at a sound that combined a plaintive acoustic guitar with James Burton’s lead electric guitar, and the single topped the charts in March of 1967.
“Really, there is no way to describe the ensuing three years of Merle Haggard’s career, no way to elucidate the artistic growth he underwent beginning with those August 1966 sessions,” wrote Daniel Cooper in the liner notes to Haggard’s boxed set, Down Every Road. “For country music, there is nothing comparable, no other time when a country singer has delivered as broad—or varied—and as consistently deep and moving a body of work in so short a time as Merle Haggard did from ‘The Fugitive’ through the close of the 1960s.”
In that period, Haggard released an incredible eight albums, including a live record, and his Strangers band put out an instrumental album on Capitol. In the studio, Haggard sang “Branded Man,” a song that revealed the fear and shame that followed his prison release, death-row ballad “Sing Me Back Home,” plainly worded masterpiece “I Started Loving You Again,” blistering rave-up “Workin’ Man Blues,” the sadder-than-sad “Silver Wings” and numerous other classics. “Okie” brought him, unshielded, to public light, but it did not dim his run of epic songwriting. And, though, “Okie” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” were ideological opposites of friend Johnny Cash’s open-minded “What Is Truth,” the men remained close and their fans were not asked to choose between them in any sort of Toby Keith/Dixie Chicks-style skirmish.
“Johnny Cash and I, we believed in the freedom of speech,” Haggard says today. Haggard also believed in freedom of expression, and he was unfazed when some conservatives who had flocked to “Okie” were shocked by “Irma Jackson,” Haggard’s pro-tolerance take on interracial romance. That one shouldn’t have surprised anyone: He’s recorded Tommy Collins’ similarly minded “Go Home” years earlier. Haggard was speaking his mind, not speaking from a platform.
“Merle is arguably the best songwriter that our genre has ever seen,” said Grammy nominated songwriter Odie Blackmon. “At the level of songwriting he’s achieved, and the honesty and the depth, that man wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s a moody, emotional person, and everyone around him understands that. It’s a little like his burden, his curse.”
The heart-on-sleeve approach extends to the stage, where Haggard’s mood and outlook make their way into each night’s song selection.
“I took a set list onstage for the last time in 1969,” Haggard said. “And what we wound up with was so far away from what we set out to do, I thought it was stupid to put everybody through the stress of that: Why don’t we just walk out there with our songs and our talent, and see what happens?”
Whatever troubles Haggard may have ever had with stage fright have long been assuaged. “I don’t ever worry about going onstage anymore,” he said. “I finally realized that stage fright is the fear of people paying attention to you… and they don’t do that. They’re too wrapped up in their own f***ing shit. So go out and have fun and be yourself, because you can’t be anything else, anyway.”
In the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, Haggard recorded for Capitol, MCA, Epic and Curb. He learned to play the fiddle for his Bob Wills tribute album, and he turned country fans’ attentions to the Big Easy for his I Love Dixie Blues… So I Recorded Live in New Orleans record. He also adjusted his writing style to fit the changes in his singing voice, which became deeper and mellower over the years. Haggard’s ‘70s records were rhythmically intense and hard-hitting. His ‘80s studio works favored space and clarity and offered a slower, longer burn. Some singer-songwriters espouse the “cream always rises” theory, but Haggard recognizes that many of his finer songs have been album cuts, less suited to radio play than to repeated, attentive listening.
“I had a song called ‘Footlights’ that has become a big song over the years,” he said. “It was never a single, because the record company acted like they didn’t understand.”
Haggard understood not only high high-water marks, but also the excellence of other writers. Through his voice, many listeners first heard the words and melodies of Iris DeMent, Blaze Foley and numerous other superb and under-celebrated writers. In the new century, he has continued to record fine works penned by others, and he has been a voice of reason and reconciliation in an increasingly strident political atmosphere. His own attempted summit between Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks never happened, but he did make the point that political divergence need not necessitate hostility. Of late, his own life contains little in the way of hostility, as he has at long last found happiness in his marriage with wife Theresa Haggard and in his fatherhood. Lately, the sad songs have held a sour ring.
“In order to be honest, I had to write about what was happening now in my life, and I couldn’t identify with some of the lyrics I’d written over the years,” he said. “There have been some good, positive songs that have come from this.”
One such song is “Down At the End of the Road,” where he contemplates his family, his marriage and his contentment with late life. Theresa sings with him on a bouncing take on “Live and Love Always.” And even on “Pretty When It’s New,” a rumination on new love, Haggard offers the caveat, “An old love’s even sweeter, that old saying’s really true.”
And while in conversation Haggard remains politically outspoken (“You can’t just write a bailout check for a billion dollars. That’s as scary and out-of-control as I ever remember”), he is adamant that songs should contain an element of optimism.
“People don’t need to be badgered anymore, I don’t think,” he said. “We need to have music that contributes to the well-being of the spirit. Music that cradles people’s lives and makes things a little easier. That’s what I try to do, and what I want to do. You don’t want to close the door on hope.”