Merle Haggard (1937-2016)

The country music singer died today on his 79th birthday. I am not greatly familiar with his music but I loved his big 1969 hit Okie From Muskogee that contrasted supposedly wholesome patriotic small town values with the hippie, anti-war, drug-using behaviors of the coastal cities.

As Patrick Doyle writes:

He had a hit with his signature song, “Okie From Muskogee,” in 1969, which he wrote after becoming frustrated watching hippies protest the Vietnam War. Released three weeks after Woodstock, the song captured the tension between the hippies and the heartland. Its plainspoken pro-military, anti-drug, anti-premarital sex lyrics became an anthem for Americans feeling alienated by the counterculture movement. It stayed at Number One a month.

Haggard was coy as to whether the lyrics were heartfelt or a parody. The words are so funny (Muskogee is described as “a place where even squares can have a ball”) that I cannot believe that they were meant to be taken seriously, and the expressions on his face and that of his band mates during this live performance suggest that they were all in on the joke. He also flubs the last line.

There were rumors that the idea for the song came to him as their tour bus drove through the town of Muskogee while the band was high on marijuana, and that he thought it would be funny to draw such a sharp contrast between caricatures of city and country values. Later in life he advocated for the legalization of marijuana calling it “one of the most fantastic things in the world.”


  1. Menyambal says

    I stayed in Muskogee a while, back in 1980 or so. It was an awful experience.

    I think a lot of country music is supposed to be parody, but the writers aren’t really good at it, and the fans take it ‘way too serious.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    …Its plainspoken … anti-drug… lyrics …

    Only anti-pot/acid:

    And white lightnin’s still the biggest thrill of all

  3. Fellownutter says

    Hmm, you’re saying Merle was a con man. So many of his songs were in the same vein as Okie, e.g., Are the Good Times Really Over for Good, Where Did America Go, Rainbow Stew, America First, Politically Uncorrect with Gretchen Wilson, etc. He must have been really inauthentic! It boggles the mind.

  4. Fellownutter says

    I forgot Merle’ s I’m A White Boy. Yes, surely his music is parody, since it is unthinkable he might feel any affection for or loyalty to the people he came up among.

  5. Mano Singham says


    I am not sure why you think that Haggard writing one song as a satire implies that all his songs were. I found this article that contained a collection of the many times where he explained the genesis of the song and that it indeed started out as a joke. Here’s a sample but the article contains more.

    Spring 1969
    During a tour of the US, as the band was passing through Oklahoma on Interstate 40, Merle Haggard spotted a sign saying, “Muskogee, 19 miles.” He woke up his drummer Roy Edward Burris and joked that he bet they didn’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. This started a jokey conversation among the band about other activities that might be frowned on in a sleepy town – and Haggard knew the territory because his family was from Checotah, Oklahoma, near Muskogee – and what it meant in the context of the Vietnam War. The song was written in 15 minutes, Burris later revealed.

    The following night they sang it on stage on what Haggard called “a trial basis”, in the Fort Bragg, North Carolina officers club. There was whooping after the verse:

    “We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street,
    we like living right and being free.”

    Haggard recalled: “Soldiers started comin’ after me on the stage,” country music musician Haggard said, “and I didn’t know what was going to happen next until they took the mike and said we’d have to do it again before they’d let us go. I had never had this strong of a reaction before.” They ended up playing the song four times.

    February 1970
    The song is already a hit (it sold 264,000 copies in a matter of months) and Reuters report: “Haggard has tapped, perhaps for the first time in popular music, into a vast reservoir of resentment against the long-haired young and their underground society.” Haggard tells a reporter that Okie from Muskogee started out as a joke, saying: “We wrote it to be satirical originally. But then people latched on to it, and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were.”


    Haggard tells Quarter Notes magazine: “Okie made me appear to be a person who was a lot more narrow-minded, possibly, than I really am.”

  6. says

    In the early 1990’s I used to date a cute little girl from Checotah, Oklahoma whose last name was Haggard. She was from Merle’s family. She told me that “Okie from Muskogee” was written as a cover for her family’s marijuana smuggling activities.The McClellan–Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System had been completed and the Haggards were using it to smuggle hundreds of pounds of weed from the Gulf of Mexico. She said they wanted to branch out from making moonshine. FYI: Any one can consult Google Maps and verify that Interstate 40 is more than 19 miles from Muskogee. There would not have been a sign that read “Muskogee 19 miles” like Merle said.

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