March 14 marks the anniversary of Merle Haggard’s other take on small town patriotism, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” The 1970 single and the prior year’s “Okie From Muskogee” represent multiple things for Haggard’s legacy, cementing his reputation as a storyteller while exemplifying Nashville’s reaction to the Vietnam War.
By the dawn of the 1970s, the folk revival and rock-loving hippies made an always changing popular music climate a source for anti-war sentiments shared by roots-leaning musicians. That’s why Creedence Clearwater Revival songs blare whenever a movie or documentary makes it to the Vietnam years.
Country music remained apolitical for the most part, making a song like “Okie From Muskogee” or “The Fightin’ Side of Me” groundbreaking. Both share an ornery view of war protesters and draft dodgers. Even if parts of both songs seem tongue-in-cheek, the song offered an opposing voice to politicized rock and folk music.
A Calculated Move
In the wake of “Okie’s” chart-topping success, Capitol Records and producer Ken Nelson wanted another conservative political rant from Haggard. Allegedly, Haggard wanted a song about an interracial couple titled “Irma Jackson” as his next single. That song didn’t see the light of day for two more years due to its content. Instead, Haggard was hassled into cutting another chart-topping, patriotic song. This turn of events makes it seem as if the country music business thought its fans wanted pro-Vietnam war songs, not statements of racial acceptance.
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A Gifted Storyteller
Haggard doesn’t sing “The Fightin’ Side of Me” as himself. Like other great country singers, he can briefly become a song’s narrator. These instances of country singer theatrics allow listeners to suspend disbelief for something that’s entertainment even when the lyrics get a little heavy. In this case, Haggard is basically the uncouth know-it-all at the bar or barbershop, ready to explain why his kids’ teachers and the local newspaper are always wrong.
Haggard’s lyrical performance is presented as just part of his act because, frankly, it’s hard to get a read on his political views. If anything, such latter-day songs as the anti-flag burning “Me and Crippled Soldiers” and his genuine take on “The Immigrant” paint him as a non-partisan thinker who loved freedom, even if he didn’t really want to fight strangers over it.
This character Haggard becomes loves America above all else. Supporting our troops is honorable, but his good-spirited patriotism boils into unbridled rage. In fact, defending the freedoms he upholds defines the narrator’s very manhood. Notice that he defends freedoms “our fightin’ men have fought and died to keep” while dismissing the opposition as some “squirrely guy” who doesn’t have to live here if it’s so awful. Basically, only wimps and sissies oppose the “wars we fight,” which could open a whole different discussion about how past country music hits view gender roles.
A Career-Defining Hit
“The Fightin’ Side of Me” proved to be a successful follow-up single to “Okie From Muskogee.” Both took a turn topping the Hot Country Singles chart. Together, they expanded Haggard’s public image. Beforehand, “I”m a Lonesome Fugitive” and “Mama Tried” created a proto-outlaw image of sorts for the singer. Within the next two years, he’d become an unlikely and successful part of the music industry’s running commentary on war, making him a forerunner for the boldly patriotic Charlie Daniels Band. Nowadays it’s another artistically-rewarding step between Haggard helping Buck Owens craft the Bakersfield sound and earning his deserved status as the legend behind some of country music’s biggest hits.