Fightin’ side forward

When they’re runnin’ down my country, hoss
They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me. …

Those scrappy lines socked their way into the Great American Songbook years ago. They’re part of the chorus to a country-music chart-topper that’s as emblematic of a tumultuous time — the tail end of the 1960s, when the Vietnam War was splitting this country apart for brutal open-heart massage — as the decade’s love-and-peaceniks.

But don’t disentangle yourself from the flag just yet; this, from the same year:

We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.

Those two separate sets of verses are by country-music legend Merle Haggard, from his 1969 hits “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee.”

Now compare Hag’s chest-thumping lyrics to these from Toby Keith’s 2002 tune “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”:

You’ll be sorry that you messed with
The U.S. of A.,
‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass;
It’s the American way.

Like Haggard more than 30 years before, Keith turned unapologetic jingoism into a No. 1 country hit, this time in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

But while Keith is now basking in the title of “America’s Favorite Redneck” — his new No. 1 album Shock’N Y’all includes such poisonous fare as “The Taliban Song” — Haggard, these days, is on the opposite side of the fence.

And unlike Keith, he’s barely getting airplay at all.

With nearly 70 albums to his name, the iconic musician self-released the sterling Haggard Like Never Before in 2003. Its Iraq War-focused leadoff single, “That’s the News,” turns its anger home.

“Politicians do all the talkin’,” goes one key line. “Soldiers pay the dues.”

What the hell happened here?

“I’m a very patriotic guy, and I’m very much an American,” Haggard declared recently, with characteristic candor, by phone from his northern California home. “But there’s only so much political rhetoric you can swallow.”

Haggard by the numbers

His very first single — “Sing a Sad Song” on Tally Records — went to No. 19 on the country charts early in 1964. Two years later, Hag had his inaugural chart-topper with “The Fugitive,” on Capitol (since re-titled “I Am a Lonesome Fugitive”).

But it was “Okie From Muskogee” in 1969 that made the California boy raised on Bob Wills and Hank Williams a Music City superstar. Hag had tapped the literal temper of the times.

His string of top-10 country hits early in his career remains astonishing — songs detailing the exploits of ordinary, big-hearted palookas either standing tall or buckling under one earthly temptation or another.

Hag would top the charts more than three dozen times before his streak ended in 1987 with “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (MCA Records).

That’s right about when the Hat Boys arrived on the scene, led by the insufferable Garth Brooks. They copped Haggard’s snipped-yodel vocal quirk as a singing style, wearing it like some badge of authenticity, and then glossed the legend’s ornery spirit and blunt humanity right out of the equation, the shameless bastards. Country radio has never been the same since.

“When the Garth Brooks thing happened in ’89, it was sort of like [radio] said, ‘Hey, let’s get rid of the rest of the old c••ksuckers,'” Haggard told The Onion three years ago.

Never mind that the Country Music Hall of Famer has three Grammys (though it took him nearly 20 years to score his first), plus scads of other big awards (CMAs, ACMs, etc.). Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

But screw all that anyway; what Haggard still brings to country music at age 66 is an innate hipness that isn’t tied to any trend. And in that respect, his peers are increasingly few: Johnny Cash died last year, and Waylon Jennings went the year before.

Now it’s just Willie Nelson — and Hag.

Home is where the boxcar is

Haggard’s story usually begins: Born in a converted California train car to Dustbowl Okie parents …

His beloved dad, a railroad man, had bought a vacant lot in the middle of an oil field outside Bakersfield, Calif. A 40-foot Santa Fe refrigerator car sat abandoned on the land, and in the 1930s, Haggard’s old man turned it into a house that stands to this day.

His father died when the singer was only 9. And soon enough, Hag set to wanderin’ — riding the rails, and running afoul of the authorities. At 20, he was escorted into San Quentin for a three-year stay.

When Johnny Cash made the controversial decision to play the San Francisco-area prison in 1959, Hag was there in the audience, already nursing a desire to try a music career himself.

Upon his release in ’62, he did just that. But first, Hag recalls, he went to Frisco, ordered a beer — and was surprised to find he couldn’t get through all of it.

“When I went [into prison], I was consuming about two six-packs a day,” the singer reveals. “I said, ‘You know what? I can’t finish a whole beer. I’m gonna leave it that way for the rest of my life.’

“And I never did start drinkin’ again.”

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