The day Merle Haggard died, I found myself talking to a friend who has served as a makeup artist in Nashville’s music industry for more years than she would like to admit. “When people ask me how long I’ve been working in the business,” she said, “I tell them I’ve been doing this since Merle Haggard was the best-looking man in country music.”
The contrast between the young musician and the elderly singer was stark—from fresh-faced movie star appearance to a stooped, haunted cragginess. It was as though the early Haggard was the anomaly, not the old Merle. He aged into his voice—a voice that conveyed from the very beginning defiance, resolve, disillusionment, and weariness. He wasn’t just Haggard; he was haggard.
Johnny Cash once told Haggard, “You’re the guy people think I am.” Cash recorded albums at San Quentin; Haggard was there in the audience, as an inmate. He was the son of “Okie” migrants to California, fleeing economic devastation and treated in their new home as immigrants often are—with stereotypes and derision. He was imprisoned at an early age, though not quite (as he sang in “Mama Tried”) doing “life without parole,” and was pardoned by California Governor Ronald Reagan. Like many in his band of outlaw troubadours, he found marrying much easier than staying married. When he sang, “She was always there, each time I needed you,” it sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
Haggard’s outlaw mindset extended to the vagaries of the culture wars. In the era of Woodstock and Port Huron, Haggard was viewed as a kind of counter to Joan Baez, a poet laureate of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” who took a direct shot at the 1960s hippie scene and student protests in his most famous song, “Okie from Muskogee.” In “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” he lampooned antiwar protesters: “I read about some squirrelly guy who claims he just don’t believe in fightin’ and I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on being free.”
Just a few years later, though, he sang elegiacally about the time “before that old Vietnam war came along.” And in the years following the September 11 attacks, when “give-’em-hell” militarism was easy money for Nashville, Haggard sang, “Let’s get out of Iraq, and get back on the track, and let’s rebuild America first.” He could get away with that in a way the Dixie Chicks never could. In 2008 he wrote a song endorsing Hillary Clinton for president. In the 1960s, he sang “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” but he made it clear in his later years that he was an Okie who did indeed smoke some marijuana, if not in Muskogee then at least on a tour bus with Willie Nelson.
Was Haggard then a culture warrior, who evolved by moving from one side to the other? Or was he, as some have suggested, always on the other side, singing songs like “Okie from Muskogee” ironically, poking fun at the “silent majority”? No. Haggard was a figure of countervailing impulses, a person who, in the words of fellow outlaw songwriter Kris Kristofferson, could be described as “a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.” Haggard wasn’t trying to be anyone’s political mascot. His art sought to serve the realities of life, especially the hard ones.
That’s not to say that Haggard wasn’t singing through the culture wars, especially with the wonderfully defiant “Okie from Muskogee.” The song was, in one sense, an answer to the exuberant eschatology of the counterculture’s anthems from “Imagine” to “Age of Aquarius” to “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Haggard responded: “We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street; We like livin’ right and bein’ free.” In his own life he knew the fragility of decency, too easily lost, and he rose to the defense of an imperfect but stolid Middle America.
Historian Rick Perlstein observed that the culture war amounted to the fact that “what one side saw as liberation the other side saw as apocalypse: and what the other saw as apocalypse, the first saw as liberation.” The scenes of LSD-intoxicated college students frolicking nude in the mud of the Woodstock Festival in New York would seem akin to Armageddon to the salt-of-the-earth Oklahomans like Haggard's father. At the same time, “a place where even squares can have a ball” must seem like hell, if you’re in Woodstock.
Haggard expressed one side of those turbulent times with verve and defiance. It’s no surprise, then, that, as music critic and Haggard biographer David Cantwell points out, two days after “Okie” hit the top 100 charts, President Nixon delivered a speech written by Patrick Buchanan on the “silent majority” who didn’t protest or yell or want free love or psychedelic drugs.
But Haggard wasn’t interested in using the “Real America” as a rhetorical weapon with which to attack “cultural elites,” something politicians from Nixon to Sarah Palin to Donald Trump often do. In fact, as someone whose family was once told they were not part of the “Real California,” I’d like to think he found such strategies repulsive. “Okie”—like most of Haggard’s work—is less about polemic than lament. He gave voice to a world whose passing he mourned. A hint of this is found in biographer David Cantwell’s anecdote of Haggard singing “Okie” at a concert in Missouri in his later years. He introduced the song not with abstractions about culture or politics but instead as “a song I wrote for my father.”
“He was from Oklahoma and he did not smoke marijuana,” Haggard said. “He. Did. Not.”
“Okie,” like “Mama Tried,” was a symbol of what Haggard himself, not just “the culture,” had lost. Haggard’s father was from Oklahoma. Haggard was a Californian. Haggard’s father did not smoke marijuana. Haggard did. The defiance of the song was a defense, as many of his songs (“Workin’ Man Blues,” for instance) were—of those who were derided by the mainstream of society, like the “Okies” demonized in California, as, at best, a drag on the economy and, at worst, a threat to public safety. Not everyone can surf the wave of creative destruction that has upended markets and morals. When it comes crashing over ordinary folks, some will cling to God or guns. Or even vote for Donald Trump. Haggard understood these responses without necessarily sharing them. He sided with the outlaws, not their law-breaking. He was loyal to the little guy, not a spokesman for his politics. He stood with, not for.
Haggard sang of decline—the decline of his country and his industry, to be sure (among his final works, in collaboration with Willie Nelson were songs such as “It’s All Going to Pot” and “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash”). But, mostly, Haggard sang about his own decline. He sang about running from his mother’s “Sunday learnin’” toward the distant sound of train whistles. He sang about the hardship that comes with “Learning to Live with Myself.” He sang about the remarkable things he’d seen in a career that made him one of the most important songwriters of the twentieth century but concluded, “I’ve seen many a great tomorrow turn to yesterday; I’ve seen it, boys, and I’ve seen it go away.”
Resistant both to the exuberance of youthful idealism and to the aging apathy Will Durant described as a “general anesthesia” administered by nature to prepare a person for death, Haggard sang with the Stoic resolve that can watch decline and disappointment, and endure. He was closer to the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius than to the Gospel of Mark, but the Meditations are an improvement on the right-wing talk radio or left-wing social-justice utopians of the moment. It’s not grace, but it’s not bad.
Mid-career, Haggard wrote one of the most powerful songs in country music, “Footlights.” It opens: “I live the kind of life most men can only dream of. I make my living writing songs, and singing them. But I’m forty-one years old, and I ain’t got no place to go when it’s over, so I hide my age and make the stage and try to kick the footlights out again.” He sees that he’s being overtaken by sad, hard truths about human nature. Yet the spirit of the song is neither self-indulgently morose nor falsely defiant. The next day dawns; we endure.
There’s much wisdom to be found here. The Gospel is only good news, after all, for a people who have learned of the Fall. We can only seek the city that is to come after we see that “here we have no lasting city” (Heb. 13:14). I don’t know whether Merle Haggard ever found the justifying grace of the Book of Romans, but he certainly knew the sober wisdom of Ecclesiastes, and he knew it far better than the cloying “Turn! Turn! Turn!” songs of the counterculture that so looked down on Okies from Muskogee. He looked wistfully at his long-gone roots and mournfully toward death and decay. He sang himself home.
Merle Haggard aged into his music. He grew up into his genius. I hope that’s not the end of his story. Maybe an outlaw somehow found mercy. Maybe a lonesome fugitive found a city of refuge. Perhaps, at long last, a haggard man has found rest. Songs of lament don’t always lead to psalms of repentance. Wisdom about sin doesn’t always lead to the obedience of faith. Still, one never knows, after all, what happens in the final blasts of frost in the winter of a man’s life. If he made it through December, he’ll be fine.
Russell D. Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. He is the author of Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.