Merle Haggard vs. San Francisco: Five Songs in Which Country's Best Works Through His Issues with the Bay
Merle Haggard may contain multitudes, but he tends to feel just one of those multitudinous things at a time -- and to feel it so hard and pure that he seems to have forgotten all the previous things he's felt that might not square with it.
The Hag will make you eat that gee-tar, hippies
Perhaps that explains his hot-and-cold relationship with San Francisco, a city that over the range of his catalog sometimes stands out as the place he wants to escape to, sometimes stands out as the place he wants to escape, period, and sometimes exemplifies all that's gone wrong with America. Perhaps he'll make his feelings clear when he shows up at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass next month.
To prep, here's a guide through Haggard's history with our fair city. Note that he wrote all of these songs. As if being country music's finest male singer wasn't enough, he's also one of the 20th century's finest songwriters.
Oh, a couple of these aren't available on the open Internet, but you absolutely should track them down through whatever avenue you've settled upon for music consumption.
1. "Okie from Muskogee" (1969, from every Merle Haggard compilation ever)
Depending on the day, his mood, and his audience, Haggard's most famous song is either a countercountercultural anthem composed out of pique, a character study composed to honor the traditionalist perspective of millions of Americans, or a straight-up satire of small-town values penned over a joint by a smartass. At a casino concert I caught a couple years back, Haggard introduced the song by announcing a) he doesn't like to do it much these days, and b) some Marines had requested it, and their side of things still needs to be told.
Today, "Okie" feels like sincere kitsch. The narrator -- a hivemind "we" rather than Hag's usual first-person -- stands for flag and country and not burning draft cards, which seems to square with Haggard's personal opinions. But the song also champions "pitching woo" and denounces drugs just before praising "white lightning" -- and, wait, how are moonshine lovers the paragons of American law and order?
Anyway, the narrator carps at the long hair worn by "the hippies out in San Francisco" and comes out against beads and "Roman sandals," insisting that, in Muskogee, "leather boots are still in style for manly footwear" -- a line so strained and florid that it has to be a joke. Maybe.
2. "California on My Mind" (1969, from Pride in What I Am)
The same year he unleashed "Okie," and a year before its even more bellicose follow-up, "The Fighting Side of Me," Haggard and his Strangers knocked out this easygoing shuffle for the Pride in What I Am LP. (That record also features "I Think We're Livin' in the Good Old Days," a cheery sentiment that entirely belies the nation-in-peril tone of the hits that were making him famous.)
"California on My Mind" is an electric string-band lark that at times sounds like a rough draft of his 1981 masterpiece "Big City." His narrator, sick of the grimy life in some unnamed metropolis, dreams of lighting out for the West, in this case for Redwood City, where "the sun is shining," there's "a gal waiting," and he's sure to find work because he's "a prune picker."
California (and, uncharacteristically, the Bay Area) is here equated with all that's good about home. Haggard hails from Bakersfield, of course. He has long lived near Lake Shasta, and many of his best songs ("Kern River," "Tulare Dust," "California Cottonfields") honor the Central Valley with proper-noun specifics. But his most notable Bay stay is likely not one that endeared the region to him: three years in San Quentin in the late 1950s.