When Tom Smothers Turned Merle Haggard’s Most Conservative Song Into an Anti-War Protest

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Sept. 26 2013 5:05 PM

When Tom Smothers Turned Merle Haggard’s Most Conservative Song Into an Anti-War Protest

In his new book, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind (University of Texas Press), David Cantwell traces the contradictions and complexities in the life and work of the country music legend, from his California childhood to the Kennedy Center Honors and beyond. Below is an excerpt from the book, reprinted with permission.

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In the fall of 1969, as “Okie from Muskogee” rocketed up the country charts on its way to becoming a minor crossover hit, Merle Haggard appeared on the short-lived ABC series Music Scene. Hosted by a cast of presumably counter-culture-cool comedians (including David Steinberg and Lily Tomlin), and focused around performances of each week’s higher-charting records on Billboard various singles charts, Music Scene survives on DVD as a snapshot of American pop culture at that moment when the ’60s gave way to the ’70s. The show’s comedy intros—Nixon jabs, “bad needle” jokes—have dated badly, but the music was amazing.

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Music Scene’s October 29 episode kicked off with musical guest Sly & the Family Stone, who tear through a take-no-prisoners live performance that skips the group’s smash of the moment, “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” in favor of a pair of hits from the year before. Sly himself is a sight to behold, resplendent in a puffy-sleeved goldenrod blouse kind of thing that cinches in front, exposing his stomach. The Family Stone raced through an abbreviated “Everyday People,” their Love Crowd embrace of we’re-all-in-this-togetherness: “Different strokes for different folks … We got to live together!” Then veered quickly into “Dance to the Music,” an even more irresistible call though one that builds to a less inviting exhortation from trumpeter Cynthia Robinson: “All the squares go home!” As Sly keyboarded the song to a close, the dancing-to-the-music studio audience nearly crowded the band off the stage. No squares here.

Music Scene’s guest host that week was Tom Smothers, one half of the folk-revival comedy duo The Smothers Brothers. The Smothers’ establishment-tweaking series, the controversial The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, had been canceled only that April—for tardy script submission, CBS said; for pissing on the President, and middle-American values generally, everyone understood. Adding insult to injury, The Comedy Hour was replaced by that antithesis of counter-culture cool, Hee Haw, a frozen-in-amber bit of C&W vaudeville that was almost instantly more popular than the Smothers’ show had been. Now, on Music Scene, Tom Smothers had to introduce Merle Haggard, Hee-Haw’s second-episode guest star back in June and a performer on the show three more times by Labor Day. Normally Tom plays a naive dummy to the comic exasperation of his brother Dick, but not tonight. Tonight Tom’s playing Himself, a persona oozing bitterness. Understandably so, given recent developments, but harder to cotton is Smothers’ condescension, a sneer he aimed not only at the man he’s introducing but at any of the everyday people viewing at home who might be inclined to endorse, or just enjoy, what’s to follow.

“Throughout the time the show’s been on the air, it has had some really groovy aware guests on the show,” Smothers begins. He’s sitting on the studio floor, surrounded by an integrated group of with-it-looking youth. No beads or Roman sandals can be seen, but there are smock-tops and long hair. “You know, the Beatles and John Lennon singing ‘Give Peace a Chance’,” Smothers continues. “And very hip people…”

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“Uh, now, under the Equal Time Provision set up by the, uh, Bureaucratic, uh, Establishment”—Smothers is mumbling—“uh, Orientation of America, we’ve got to make adjustments and give equal time to the other side. So, here’s Merle Haggard with a song that jumped from No. 30 to No. 7 on the Hot Country, uh, Singles Chart of Billboard.” Smothers feigns a cough and, after covering his mouth in mock politeness, mimes taking a hit off a joint. Finally, still holding make-believe smoke in his lungs, Smothers chokes, “Ladies and Gentleman. Merle Haggard. ‘Okie from Muskogee.’ ” Smothers fake-releases fake smoke and grins.

I expected the camera to pan right or left now, revealing Merle Haggard and the Strangers set up to play live in the studio just as Sly and his Family Stone had a moment before. The screen went black instead, save a circle of spotlight that bounced in and out of center as the camera began a slow zoom. Probably a pre- or post-taped segment, I realize. Which means, too, that Haggard likely wasn’t there to hear Smothers introduce him as the government-mandated “other side.” He doesn’t know, as the audience at home does, that his performance has been presented as a joke and that he’s the punch line.

The camera moves closer. Following Sly Stone would be a nearly impossible task under the best circumstances, but Merle has been triply handicapped in the attempt, sitting down (on a white-railed porch), without his Strangers and with a bloodhound sitting inexplicably at his side. Merle croons gently, almost sweetly, and he punctuates his song’s details—“We don’t smoke marijuana … We still wave Old Glory … holdin’ hands and pitchin’ woo”—with frequent bemused grins, as if to say, “I know, I know. Hard to believe, huh? But we really are this square.” The song, this night, feels like an embracing of, accompanied by a chuckle at, the out-of-fashion ways of small-town America. When he declares in the title line how proud he is of all this, he mugs broadly, even rolls his eyes just a bit, like he knows all of it—the pride, the song, the Hag—must be just about the corniest thing you ever heard. Old Glory? White lightnin’? Woo? After Sly’s mini-riot of a party, Merle Haggard comes off less like a representative of another side and more like an ambassador from another planet. The name of this alien world is “Muskogee, Oklahoma, U.S.A.”

Then, the lights come up, and what’s revealed isn’t alien at all but distressingly familiar. Merle’s white-railed porch is surrounded by American flags—as the camera retreats, there are more and more of them until it’s as if Merle is singing from the middle of a military cemetery. And just like that, a song in part protesting anti-war protesters has been commandeered by the show’s set designer into an anti-war protest.

David Cantwell is the author of Merle Haggard: The Running Kind and co-author of Heartaches by the Number.

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