The Cowboy And The Crooner: Merle Haggard And Ronald Reagan

Craig Shirley President, Shirley & Banister Public Affairs
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Ronald Reagan was not, by most accounts, partial to any particular type of music. He was pretty pedestrian in his choices, according to sources. He liked the Big Band music of Benny Goodman and was known to dance to “Little Brown Jug” and if asked, would have named Frank Sinatra as his favorite singer. But he was not a collector of records, as many Americans were in the 1940’s and beyond.

He did memorize the words to a lot of patriotic music. Once during his presidency, he spoke at the graduation ceremony for the Coast Guard. His Secretary of Transportation, Jim Burnley, accompanied Reagan and was amazed to see Reagan singing the Coast Guard anthem without once referring to the song book.

Indeed, he probably inspired more protest music than there was music which inspired him. Mediocre songs by Sting, John Fogarty and Don Henley popped up occasionally on AM stations in the 1980’s. They were forgettable but the great Merle Haggard was not. And Reagan was an admirer of Haggard’s.

It comes as little surprise that Reagan was partial to Haggard, but it may have been more because of Haggard’s hardscrabble upbringing than because Reagan was a big fan of country music. Haggard grew up dirt poor, (not Hillary Clinton poor, with only a few house maids) inside an old boxcar his father converted into the semblance of a home.

His father died when he was a teenager which led to a young lifetime of crime and prison. By the time he was 16, he was playing in honky tonks, using an old guitar given him by a family member.

Haggard was in and out of jail for years for auto theft and check kiting and once heard Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin Prison, sentenced there for three years including spending his 21st birthday in solitary confinement. Later, he was at the cutting edge of what later became known as “Outlaw” country, along with Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr.

He sang of “I ain’t never been on welfare — that’s one place I won’t be,” in Working Man Blues and in his signature song, Okie from Muskogee, “We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street.” And “but we like living right and being free.” Still, he was not always popular with all Republicans. He recalled once singing in the Nixon White House and everybody sitting there like “mannequins.”

He played for the Reagans more than once, including at an outdoor concert in California, just down the road from their ranch. At the affair, Haggard said “I hope the president will be as pleased with my performance as I was with his pardon ten years ago.” Reagan, ever gracious, said, “Merle Haggard’s music is now the heart and soul of America.” It was also the Reagans’ 30th wedding anniversary, so the selection of Haggard had to be special. After he finished, the Reagans led the audience in a standing ovation for the country crooner.

In the end, he produced 38 number one hit songs, dozens of albums and was a big fan of Ronald Reagan, especially after Governor Reagan granted the singer a “full and unconditional pardon” in March of 1972. Reagan personally added to his pardon, “best wishes for your success and happiness.” Haggard later said the pardon changed his life and at least once quipped that Reagan belonged on Mt. Rushmore. “He gave me a second chance at life,” Haggard said after Reagan died.

“He was a wonderful man in my life.”