This is an article I wrote in tribute to Merle Haggard back in April. I hope you enjoy it. It was originally posted on The Vinyl Vortex. The original article and others by Gabe Crawford can be found here. Follow Gabe Crawford on Twitter for all his music musings @gabecrawford and @vinylvorrtexok.
Recently I had a conversation with my mom about how if I married a girl from CA and had a baby there, the baby would still be half Okie. Well mama tried to explain to me that being an Okie isn’t quite a “race,” but that it is a term to designate where you’re from.
I agree to disagree.
As I sit and contemplate the loss of Merle Haggard this concept has never rung more true. Haggard was well-known for his hit “Okie From Muskogee,” but his relationship with the red dirt did not begin or end there. His parents were from Oklahoma, mostly between the Checotah and Muskogee areas. They moved to California to avoid the dust bowl.
Not too long after they moved Merle was born. They lived in a box car that they had transformed into a home. It was a humble beginning, yet it was laying the foundation for one of the greatest first hand songwriters music will ever witness.
He may have been born in California, but both his parents were Okies. He was raised Okie. That’s all his parents knew. Wouldn’t that make him full Okie?
Throughout Haggard’s life he proved to have the core values of being an Oklahoman. These values include dedication to family, hard-work, respect, being thankful, nobility, and sometimes a little beer. Oklahoma values run deep and they don’t live within borders.
My concept that being Okie runs deeper than where you were born and raised is evident in one of Haggard’s most heralded albums, Okie From Muskogee.
Haggard opens up this live recording from Muskogee’s Civic Center with “Mama Tried,” his musical apology to his Mama for all his mishaps. This number one hit has more than just success behind its name. The deeper layer of this song is the power and meaning of family.
Then he goes into a rousing rendition of Jimmie Rodger’s “No Hard Times.” This song is for all the working men and woman who do all they can to make ends meet. It is the perfect companion song to the “Workin’ Man Blues” found later in the album. Labor created Oklahoma and labor sustains it. If one questions this notion just go visit my friends down in Indiahoma during harvest. You’ll quickly hush up.
A concert from Haggard is never complete without “Silver Wings,” one of my personal favorites from his catalog. He sings this song nearly effortlessly with barely any harmony. The grit is real in this song. For me this song is reminiscing on the past and never forgetting those who laid the foundation for where you live and who you are today.
Haggard then touches on something most Oklahomans have in common, a good drink. He introduces a melody of songs saying they are for the drunks. Haggard properly encompasses this idea in his medley of “Swinging Doors,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” and “Sing me Back Home.” We’re not drunks in Oklahoma, but a nice drink every now and then is essential for the majority of us. And then there are those nights….
Side B has many highlights, but two songs in particular make this side profoundly Okie. First comes “Billy Overcame His Size.” This song tells the story of a young man of small stature named Billy. The song goes on to explain how although Billy’s brother received an athletic scholarship, something Billy could not achieve due to his size, Billy did something even bigger. He died for his country.
In Oklahoma your neighbor’s problems are your problems. We never shy from giving a helping hand from holding the door open to towing a car out of ditch. This is personified in the Oklahoma standard that has been seen through the Oklahoma City Bombing and various tornado out breaks. We never abandon our own. We always overcome our size.
Lastly Haggard serenades the crowd with “Okie From Muskogee.” The song everybody in the audience was waiting for. Although, this song is much more than a catchy ode about the lifestyles of Oklahomans.
This song is about respecting your elders, supporting your country, and staying true to your roots. This song posses the elements of pride, a noble character, and the God-fearing qualities that the majority of Oklahoman’s possess. It is about being proud of where you came from and thankful to those who got you here.
We don’t balk at what has been given to us nor the authority we rightly belong under. We give credit where it’s due and if that means supporting our country then give us a flag and a shotgun. We love our country, our family, and our way of life. That is something to die for. Haggard understood this.
This is just the tip of Haggard’s profound career and what he created. I join the country in mourning one of music greatest songwriters, performers, and musical talents. His legacy cannot be explained by words alone. I do not claim to be a Haggard expert, but I am truly proud of the example he set for his listeners. He wasn’t perfect and he never pretended to be, but he always had values.
American values. Oklahoma values.
If there was only a little more Okie spreading around, a little more Haggard, this country may just be a better place.
God Bless the Hag.