The Magazine Reader

Merle Haggard, Still Playing The Country Contrarian

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 8, 2005

One day in 1951, a runaway 14-year-old boy named Merle Haggard accomplished two memorable things: He bought his first pair of cowboy boots in a secondhand store and he lost his virginity in a whorehouse in Amarillo, Tex.

Interviewing Haggard for a wonderfully entertaining profile in the November issue of GQ, writer Chris Heath asked the legendary country singer and songwriter if his experiences in that whorehouse changed him.

Haggard pondered the question for a minute. "Not really," he replied. "I think the cowboy boots affected me more. I mean, the gal just affirmed what I already knew, but the cowboy boots made a new man out of me."

These days, country music stars are created in a factory in China, molded out of plastic by workers earning 38 cents an hour, then shipped to Nashville, where they are fitted for a cowboy hat and taught to sing ditties written by a committee of moonlighting Hallmark employees. But Haggard, now 68, is the last of a more authentic breed.

He was born in California in 1937, two years after his Okie parents fled the Dust Bowl in the exodus immortalized in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" and in countless Woody Guthrie songs. Haggard grew up in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, where his father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad. When he was 9, Haggard returned home from a Wednesday night prayer meeting to find his father paralyzed from a stroke. When his dad died, Haggard started running away from home.

"I was 11 years old when I first hopped a freight train," he says. "Didn't go far. Went about a hundred miles and they arrested me in Fresno."

That was the first of many arrests for various petty crimes. Finally, when Haggard was 20, he was caught drunkenly trying to burglarize a restaurant that was still open and sent to San Quentin prison. He spent three years there and witnessed, he says, "horrors too terrible to think about, much less talk about."

When he got out, he turned his experiences into dozens of simple but powerful songs. In the late 1960s, he had hits with two anti-hippie anthems -- "Okie From Muskogee" and "Fightin' Side of Me" -- which got him stereotyped as a right-wing redneck. But he's far more complicated and deeper than that, singing with powerful sympathy about death-row inmates and hunted fugitives and the pain of hardworking men who can't earn enough to support their families.

Heath asked Haggard what somebody might learn by listening to his songs.

"That I'm a contrary old son of a bitch, I guess," Haggard replies.

Indeed he is. As it turns out, the man who sang "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee" not only smoked tons of marijuana but also got himself messed up on cocaine. He told Heath how he concluded, in 1983, that he had a problem: He was on his houseboat with a beautiful woman and a pile of coke for five days and never got around to having sex.

That's yet another good reason to avoid the evil white powder. But somehow I don't think the Partnership for a Drug-Free America will be summoning Haggard to tell that story in an anti-drug ad anytime soon.

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