When Merle Haggard passed away in 2016, music fans around the globe said farewell to one of the most genuine artists to ever walk the earth. Haggard was what they call a ‘straight shooter’–someone that would give their opinion without thought of consequence. And, at times, those consequences were great. He was incarcerated in and escaped from a juvenile detention center by age 14 to ride the rails, only to be caught again and sent back to detention. By the time he was an adult, he was jailed again for robbery and sent to the infamous San Quentin Prison–where he was present for Johnny Cash’s legendary 1958 performance there.
Inspired by the Cash performance, when he was released from San Quentin in 1960, Haggard set out on his own to make it in the world of country music. He, along with others like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, would go on to be the progenitors of what is now known as ‘outlaw country’–a country sound that thumbs its nose at the clean-living social mores that dominate the country music scene in Nashville to this day.
And that’s why Haggard’s biggest hit is such a head-scratcher. “I’m an Okie From Muskogee” begins with the lyrics, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee; We don’t take no trips on LSD.” The song became a runaway hit for Haggard in the mainly conservative country music scene because it was seen, not as satire, but as an embodiment of a call for the return to conservative values in the counterculture-heavy late 1960s. Over the years, Haggard gave varying accounts of the song’s message and meaning: In the conservative country scene he was seen as a right-wing hero, however, time would demonstrate that Haggard was in no way right wing. Later in the ‘70s he declared, “I have more culture now. I was dumb as a rock when I wrote ‘Okie From Muskogee.’ That’s being honest with you at the moment, and a lot of things that I said [then] I sing with a different intention now. My views on marijuana have totally changed.”
Perhaps this change of heart is what prompted the 2015 Cannabis anthem that Haggard co-wrote and performed with Willie Nelson. The song “It’s All Going To Pot” is an anthem that takes jabs at big pharma, big alcohol and the waning conservative views surrounding the legalization debate in the United States. In the video, Haggard and Nelson can be seen sharing a joint.
Haggard, ever the straight-shooter, never backed down from his stance on the benefits of Cannabis. “I think it’s silly to put someone in jail for [marijuana possession],” he told the Bakersfield Californian in 2010. “I think it’s a threat to the pharmaceutical industry that you can go to the garden to grow something that might keep you from having to use Lipitor.”