“We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy, like the hippies out in San Francisco do,” my friend Joe bellowed into the microphone at a bar in San Francisco as he sang the lines of Merle Haggard’s 1969 “Okie from Muskogee.” The response; silence and baleful glares. Even 40 years after its release, the song can still raise ire or patriotic pride-depending upon where you are-as much as it did then. Although he began writing the song in jest, Haggard claims it evolved into how he thought his father, a Depression-era Okie who settled in Bakersfield with his family to find work, would have felt about the bipartisan strife of the time. Although the song and others like it polarized audiences of the day, Haggard’s performance of the tune at the Arlington Theater on October 1 showed how far we’ve come since then. “When we come to the part about marijuana, I realize we’re in the marijuana capital of the world,” he said with a chuckle before launching into the song.
In his deep, soulful voice, Haggard has serenaded largely blue collar audiences over the years with honest lyrics about his life experiences. For better or worse, his hardscrabble early years, which saw him in and out of reform schools and eventually earned him a three-year stint at San Quentin prison, shaped his music, eventually making him the unlikely hero of conservative politicos during the 1970s and 1980s, a distinction that led then-Governor Ronald Reagan to pardon him of his crimes in 1972. Nowadays, he’s looking back at a successful career and an experientially rich life, and bringing his fans new material, such as “Love’s Always Pretty When It’s New.” This playful two-step is reminiscent of a Django Reinhart jazz track, and the lyrics, while they admit that love can be sweeter with age, poke fun at the whimsy of eating rainbows and other honeymoon period fluff. It’s the kind of fare only a gentleman who’s been around the block a few times can relate. As always, Haggard’s tried and true classics were a crowd pleaser, as he belted out “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried” with the same passion as if he had written them yesterday.
Haggard’s music has come to signify the Bakersfield sound, which emerged in the early 1960s as a rebellion against the increasingly complex, and what some called overproduced Nashville sound. Releasing such legendary tunes as “Branded Man” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which ran along similar lines as “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard penned and performed some of the more noteworthy country tunes from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s, including “Pancho and Lefty,” a collaboration with Willie Nelson.
Seen as a country music icon today, Haggard has been touring with two young men from North Carolina who were, from a young age, inspired by his classic sound. Hailing from Goldsboro, North Carolina, the Malpass Brothers-Christopher, 23, and Taylor, 20-have a clean sound that pays tribute to the straightforward country music legends of the 1950s and ‘60s, and they were the perfect opening act for this Merle Haggard show. “Our granddad ran a li’l honkey tonk, and we used to stay with him and listen to old records,” said Christopher, who has been picking and singing since he was nine years old, in his Carolina twang. “We just fell in love with it.” If the crowd of people lined up to buy their CDs after the show was any indication, the audience was quite fond of them, too. “We ain’t never set out to be stars; we just set out to do something we love.” Having finished their third tour with Haggard this season, the Malpass Brothers, who are headed back to Goldsboro for a busy show schedule, are scheduled to release a new album on Hank Records within the next couple of months.