Merle Haggard The Dixie Chicks
AP Photo/Dima Gavrysh and AP Photo/Dave Martin

Remember When Merle Haggard Defended the Dixie Chicks?

The industry and fan fallout after The Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines spoke out against then-President George W. Bush in March 2003 was so devastating that "Dixie Chick'd" remains an informal verb. The term reflects the fear of losing radio airplay and peer support for speaking your mind in a business built on "three chords and the truth."

Yet opposition by some influential figures, namely Toby Keith's public feud with Maines, tells only part of the story about whether The Dixie Chicks were completely abandoned during the ugliest kerfuffle to hit 21st century country music. On the contrary, a legend the caliber of Merle Haggard wasted no time sticking up for the trio through an essay posted on his website.

"They've cut such an honest groove with their career," Haggard wrote, per a July 2003 Rolling Stone feature.  "Because they don't like George Bush, should we take their records off? I really found that sort of scary. Are we afraid of criticism? And if so, why? It seems to me, we're guilty in this country of doing everything we've always opposed all my life. I'm almost afraid to say something. It got to the point where my wife said, 'Be careful what you say.' Well, that's really not the America I'm used to."

The essay made Haggard one of the most famous—and, depending on your point of view, least likely—champions of The Dixie Chicks' free speech.

It surely challenged literal interpretations of "Okie From Muskogee" and its anti-counterculture message. The song was most likely an inside joke about old-fashioned opposition to marijuana, not a first-person political platform. Just as Johnny Cash never shot a man and Maren Morris doesn't drive an '80s Mercedes around town, Haggard didn't necessarily live or believe every line in his songs.

Read More: Since the Vietnam War Merle Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee" Continues to Make an Impact

Opinions about "Okie" aside, Haggard recorded less veiled patriotic material over the years, such as 1990's "Me and Crippled Soldiers." None of those songs should make Haggard's stance on The Dixie Chicks shocking. People with all sorts of beliefs put free speech over their selfish interests, and opinions on social and political issues change throughout our lives.

Besides, the pro-Chicks essay wasn't Haggard's only early aughts commentary on global headlines. In 2005, he released the song "America First." As its title implies, it's a patriotic tune about putting our nation's interests atop our priority lists. It features a line that sounds a lot like something Maines might've snuck into stage banter: "Let's get out of Iraq and get back on track." With that song in mind, it can just as easily be assumed that the Hag circa 2003 agreed with Maines about more than her right to share a polarizing opinion.

Now Watch: Remembering Merle Haggard