n Sept. 29, 1969, Merle Haggard released his song “Okie From Muskogee.” The tune went on to be one of the most famous — and controversial — country songs ever. Even to this day, “Okie” means different things to different people. But one thing’s for certain. Without “Okie From Muskogee,” the Hag’s career and country music’s history would be completely different.
In a lot of ways, “Okie From Muskogee” ushered in a side of the 1970s pop culture seems to forget. While the late 1960s and early 1970s are synonymous with “flower power” and hippies, counter-culture movements were just as strong. They just weren’t as talked about.
When “Okie From Muskogee” came out, a lot of Americans (dubbed “the silent majority”) felt they finally had an anthem that represented their nuanced, simple-living patriotism. Before the song was even a year old, the song seemed to befuddle even its own writers.
Genesis in a Joke?
Haggard and his drummer Roy Edward Burris admittedly wrote the song as a joke, a fact that’s been covered pretty well by country music historians. While driving through Oklahoma (where Haggard’s family was originally from), Haggard spotted a sign reading “Muskogee, 19 miles.” He woke Burris and joked, “I bet they don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.” The rest of the song came about in 15 minutes.
At least, that’s one prevailing story. Haggard himself both confirmed and contradicted that story multiple times throughout his career. In 1985, Haggard said that while it started as a joke, “It only lasted about three seconds before we realized the importance of it.”
He doubled down again in the late 80s, saying the song came from a place of anger at war protesters. Then, in 1990, he said he wished he hadn’t written it at all. Perhaps even more eyebrow raising, he told Ornery magazine, “What bothers me most is the people that identify with it.”
But by 2010, he’d changed his tune again. He told The Boot the song actually had its foundations in his stints in prison. “When I was in prison, I knew what it was like to have freedom taken away,” Haggard said. He thought it was wrong that protesters were blaming soldiers who had given up their freedom in the interest of protecting their country.
He went a step further, calling himself “dumb as a rock” at the time he wrote it and saying that he began singing the tune as a snapshot of America at the time. Really, he took a rather cynical view. “I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song,” he told American Songwriter. “I play it now with a different projection. It’s a different song now. I’m different now. I still believed in America then. I don’t know that I do now.”
That’s a lot to take in. How do you talk about the lasting impact of a song when you can’t even pin down what it means to its writer (who at one point wished he never wrote it)? That’s just another part of its legacy.
It’s also important to note that, while Haggard was one of country music’s greatest songwriters, he was not without demons. His youth was marred in arrests, and he actually struggled mightily with drug addiction after achieving worldwide fame. He began using cocaine and marijuana heavily until quitting all drugs in 1995. In 2009 (a year before his befuddling new stance on “Okie”), he began smoking marijuana again.
But the impact of “Okie From Muskogee” transcends what it did for and to Merle Haggard. Sure, it tripled his performance fees in a year (to $10,000). It also got him invited to the White House (by Richard Nixon, no less). It confused some of his contemporaries, like Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, who either refused to play it when asked, or played it as a joke. In fact, before he performed it at a 1972 concert, Kristofferson said, “With apologies to our good friend Merle Haggard, who is neither a redneck or a racist, he just happens to be known for probably the only bad song he ever wrote.”
Ray Wylie Hubbard wrote “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother” as a “hippie answer” to the song. Jerry Jeff Walker made it famous.