Fifty-one years ago today, Merle Haggard released his chart-topping album, Okie From Muskogee. The record helped make Haggard the country music legend he’s remembered as today.
After the release on Dec. 29, 1969, the album and the title track quickly climbed to the top of the country music charts.
Merle Haggard wrote the politically charged song, “Okie From Muskogee”, with the Strangers’ drummer, Eddie Burns. Haggard chose the Oklahoma town, Muskogee, because it represented small-town America in which he sang so many songs about. Even though he was from Oildale, CA, Haggard’s bloodline ran straight back to Muskogee, OK.
Haggard recorded the album during a performance at the Civic Center in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on Oct. 10, 1969, the day before the studio version of “Okie from Muskogee” hit the country charts.
After the release of “Okie From Muskogee,” many considered the song to be a statement against the country’s political condition at the time, even though that wasn’t Haggard’s goal for the track.
Merle Haggard Reveals True Meaning Behind Album’s No. 1 Hit
In Beyond Nashville, Haggard describes the song as more of a tribute to his late father than any political statement.
“My dad passed away when I was nine, and I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about somebody you’ve lost and you say, ‘I wonder what so-and-so would think about this?’ I was drivin’ on Interstate 40 and I saw a sign that said ’19 Miles to Muskogee.’ Muskogee was always referred to in my childhood as ‘back home.’ So I saw that sign, and my whole childhood flashed before my eyes, and I thought, ‘I wonder what dad would think about the youthful uprising that was occurring at the time, the Janis Joplins…I understood ’em, I got a long with it, but what if he was to come alive at this moment?
“And I thought, what a way to describe the kind of people in America that are sittin’ in the center of the country sayin’, ‘What is goin’ on on these campuses?’ A week or so later, I was listening to Garner Ted Armstrong, saying how the smaller colleges in smaller towns don’t seem to have any problems. And I wondered if Muskogee had a college, and it did, and they hadn’t had any trouble. No racial problems and no dope problems. The whole thing hit me in two minutes. And I did one line after another and got the whole thing done in 20 minutes.”
He continued by adding: “We wrote it to be satirical originally. But then people latched onto it, and it really turned into this song that looked into the mindset of people so opposite of who and where we were. My dad’s people. He’s from Muskogee.”
Haggard Performs ‘Okie From Muskogee’ at Ft. Bragg
After Merle Haggard finished the song, he and the Strangers performed it at a show in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The performance would be a hit after the place erupted when he finished singing.
“Soldiers started comin’ after me on the stage,” Haggard remembered. “I didn’t know what was going to happen next until they took the mic and said we’d have to do it again before they’d let us go. I had never had this strong of a reaction before.”
Merle Haggard wrote or co-wrote most of the 20 tracks on Okie From Muskogee. In 1970, the record won an ACM for Album of the Year. The title track also won Single Record of the Year and Song of the Year. That year, Haggard was recognized as Top Male Vocalist of the Year as well.