Since Merle Haggard died last week, I figured we’d spend some time listening to his music. He’s always been a struggle for me because on the one hand, he was one of the most talented songwriters ever. On the other hand, he wrote “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” — two of the most vile and reactionary songs ever. And they weren’t the only ones.
The thing is, I think Haggard was a smart and thoughtful guy. But that kind of working class bigotry toward anyone considered an outsider came all too easy for him. It’s weird and it also explains why he was all over the board when he discussed these songs. Mostly, I don’t think he much knew what he was doing. He just wrote the songs and how ever they turned out was okay. Analysis was not really what he did. But he should have. Anyone with his background and good fortune should have embraced the outsider to the core of his being.
Five years after his release from San Quentin Prison, Merle Haggard released his first album, Strangers. It’s not a great album. Over half of it is other people’s material, and I’ve never been so much taken with him as a performer. And it doesn’t include his best material. But much of it is quite fine indeed. It isn’t very distinctive, however. In particular, today’s song, “If I Had Left It Up To You” sounds like George Jones wrote it. And that’s true of most of the tunes on the album, they sound like someone else wrote them. But that doesn’t make them any less good. And for a first album, well, wow.