The tour bus was making its way down a highway in Oklahoma. It was the fall of 1969. Merle Haggard and his entourage had just performed on the Johnny Cash TV show and as usual were playing to sellout venues.
The Strangers, his backup band, were passing around a reefer. Merle took a toke and leaned back in the seat. One band member noticed the sign "Muskogie City Limits." He joked, "I bet they don't smoke marijuana in Muskogie." Merle's eyes opened. He headed back to the bus. The brilliant songwriter he was always had a pen and paper handy. In 20 minutes he had written the song "Okie From Muskogie.”
He recorded it at his next Capitol Records session. With its message of "America: love it or leave it,” the song was embraced by the pro-war, anti-drug crowd. President Nixon invited Merle to perform it at the White House. So the pot-smoking modern day Woody Guthrie, baffled and amused by the song’s misinterpretation, obliged the president....although Merle was a Democrat.
I had always felt that Merle Haggard did not belong in a country music "cage." He wrote from experience; wrote from the heart; If I were a DJ I would have played all of his records on Top 40 radio.
Merle Haggard didn't just write songs; he painted them; painted them with a broad brush that the average working man could relate to; the poor guy trying to make ends meet; the guy sitting in a jail, perhaps a victim of a flawed judiicial system.
He would have been a hit at Woodstock. Rock and pop groups idolized him, including the Grateful Dead and the Beach Boys.
We lost this great man on his birthday. He was only 79. But at a legacy of great music he left us, fortunately.