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SWAGGER, NOT STYLE

The worldwide headquarters and hindquarters of freelance writer Chris Klimek

But Do They Smoke Marijuana in Greensburg?

Chris Klimek

willie-nelson-merle-haggard.jpg I'll admit I was pretty pleased with this. I got to take my old man to the Willie, Merle & Ray Price (first-name notoriety eldudes him, I guess) show; got to rub elbows there with the Man Called Freedom; and I thought the review came out really well. (The Man Called Freedom agreed.) Plus, it got decent play when it ran in last Saturday's Paper of Record.

On Tuesday, a Post editor forwarded me an e-mail that had come in from a reader in Greensburg, PA who challenged my account of the origin of "Okie from Muskogee" from the review. It was literally just one clause in one sentence of the piece: "Mama Tried" was a predictable triumph, but even better was a brilliantly timed walk-on by Nelson during "Okie From Muskogee" -- Haggard's immortal reflection of his dad's anti-hippie stance, and rather at odds with Nelson's own biodiesel-powered, IRS-taunting lifestyle.

So, it's not I like was accusing Merle of having ripped off the bassline of "Under Pressure" or anything. Still, it was enough to get this know-it-all to write in with a contradictory, and completely unsourced, account of how Merle came to write "Okie" with Strangers drummer Eddie Burris, who shares Haggard's songwriting credit:

"Okie's" origins are well-documented. Haggard's tour bus was cruising through Muskogee, Oklahoma in 1969 when Eddie Burris, drummer for Haggard's band the Strangers, remarked offhandedly, "I bet they don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee." Overhearing Burris’s remark, Haggard turned it into a song he viewed as no more than a tongue-in-cheek novelty (both men share composer credit). "Okie" nonetheless became a huge country hit, viewed by 1969's equivalent of red-state America as a repudiation of the whole hippie counterculture though longtime, long-haired Haggard fans Jerry Garcia and Gram Parsons, seeing it as Haggard did, shrugged it off. Today, it's a period piece.

The story must be "well-documented" indeed, since the letter's author doesn't bother to source it, which is pretty remarkable considering he intended this letter for publication. It gets better: It turns out the author of the letter is himself a journalist and historian who boasts (in a follow-up letter, after my editor had replied to his) that he's been writing about music for a living since the seventies. In other words, somebody who really ought to know to cite his sources, especially when accusing another writer of not having done his research. (Admittedly, I didn't cite a source for my account of "Okie" 's origin in the review, but that was due to the fact that I had a strict 15" limit on my piece, which was, after all, a concert review, not an exploration of the influences on Hag's songcraft.)

The guy ends his letter like this:

Concert reviewers needn't have encyclopedic knowledge of the acts they evaluate, but it helps to have done some homework first. Klimek, unfortunately, did not.

Not much ambiguity there, huh? He doesn't say, "The way I always heard the story is . . ." He doesn't phrase his objection in a way that allows for the possibility that there could be more than one version of the story. He just goes straight for the jugular, stating matter-of-factly that I didn't do my homework.

Anyway, two days after the letter came in, my editor at the Post asked me if I could back up my account of how "Okie" came to be. Since the great Drive-by Truckers song "The Three Great Alabama Icons" probably doesn't rise to the level of a credible source (though I believe Patterson Hood always tells the truth when he's singing, he kind of speaks this song, which muddies the waters), I sent my editor this Haggard profile by Brock Ruggles, published in 2002 in New Times Phoenix, wherein the Branded Man himself reveals all:

Most people did not realize (and some still don't) that "Okie From Muskogee" was a social commentary that did not necessarily reflect Haggard's personal worldview. "Ya know, I'm like an actor, and whatever role you see an actor in shouldn't have anything to do with his own personality, but it does, of course," he says. "That song typecasted me for a long time.

"'Okie From Muskogee' was written about my father, and it was my intention to try to see things from his viewpoint. Had he been alive at that time, I think he woulda said, 'We're happy with the way things are here in the middle of Oklahoma, and we're really not wantin' to get out in the street and bitch like the people in Frisco.' The song was a contrast to what was going on, and there was nobody speaking up for [people like my dad], and I thought I'd jump out there and write a song for him."

Bada-bing! Well, not entirely. It turns out Hag himself has told a lot of differerent stories about how and why he wrote "Okie from Muskogee" over the years, as mentioned in this 2004 L.A. Times profile by the great Bob Hilburn.

So after my editor replied to the letter-writer ("It turns out Chris was correct"), the guy responds with a lot of bluster about how he knows Bob Hilburn, and how he's interviewed many legends of country music in his three-decades-plus of writing on the topic, and actually says he's glad he never got to interview Hag because the conflicting accounts of why he wrote probably his most famous song would drive the letter-writer crazy.

But he never apologizes for having accused me of not doing my research.

Thanks for clarifying. With 32 years under my belt, I'm always learning something new.

Maybe after 33 years, he'll have learned that a false accusation warrants an apology. You think?