- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Country music legend Merle Haggard has spent plenty of time on the road, and he will help the Smithsonian Institution tell the history of one of America’s greatest highways.

The singer-songwriter yesterday donated memorabilia of his family’s Depression-era trek along Route 66 from Oklahoma to California for “America on the Move,” an exhibit that will open this fall at the National Museum of American History.

“I sometimes wonder what it was all about,” said Mr. Haggard, 66, reminiscing about his parents at a crowded press conference where he and his sister signed over their some of their family’s belongings to the museum.

Surrounded by dignitaries and under the glare of camera flashes and TV lights, Mr. Haggard spoke of his father.

“Finally I became something that I thought James Haggard would be proud of.”

In 1935, James and Flossie Haggard left Checotah, Okla., where a fire had destroyed their home, and headed west on Route 66. With the help of $40 sent from Mrs. Haggard’s sister, who had moved to California two years earlier, the family — including daughter Lillian, then 14, and James, 12 — eventually settled near the farm town of Bakersfield, Calif., where Merle was born in 1937 in a house built from an old railroad boxcar.

The Haggard family’s journey was part of the Dust Bowl exodus from Oklahoma and other drought-stricken states, famously depicted in John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Though the Haggards went through some hard times, “we were not poor,” said Lillian Haggard Hoge, 81, dismissing as “fiction” the notion of Dust Bowl migrants as illiterate and impoverished vagabonds. The wife of a retired physician, the singer’s sister bristles at such stereotypes.

“I never considered myself a hillbilly,” she said.

Yet the arrival of so many newcomers in the 1930s — thousands relocated to California during the decade — did give rise to resentments.

“Being called an Okie, at one time, was like the ‘n-word,’” recalled Mr. Haggard, who turned the label intended as an insult into a proud anthem in his 1969 No. 1 country hit, “Okie From Muskogee.”

Donating a lamp, a trunk and other household items to the museum, the Haggards will add their family’s story to a display showing role of transportation in America’s development. Yesterday’s press conference was held atop a genuine 40-foot section of Route 66 — a donation from the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. The exhibit, which will include the road section as well as historic automobiles and locomotives, opens in November.

The inclusion of the country music great in this Smithsonian exhibit resulted from a researcher who came across one of two autobiographies written by Mr. Haggard.

“He’s famous as the Okie from Muskogee,” said the museum’s Steven Lubar, project director for the exhibit. “We called up his agent, and he put us in touch with his sister, who’s the family historian.”

Mr. Haggard’s songwriting always has included large doses of painful autobiography. His father died when he was 9. His wandering youth — he ran away from home at 14, was playing in honky-tonks at 16, and served three years in California’s San Quentin State Prison for burglary — helped inspire such tunes as “Mama Tried,” with its famous (if somewhat exaggerated) refrain: “I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole.”

His sister said she blamed herself for some of brother Merle’s youthful troubles.

“It was my fault,” Mrs. Hoge said. “I was working at the high school and Merle kept skipping school, so I told the counselor to send him to juvenile hall [when he was 14]. He knew he hadn’t done anything to deserve it, so he ran away.”

The runaway went on to become famous for Vietnam-era songs of blue-collar pride and patriotism, like “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” a defiant message to antiwar protesters who were “runnin’ down my country,” and “Workin’ Man Blues,” which proclaimed: “I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be.”

He eventually notched 39 No. 1 country hits, and in 1972 received an unconditional pardon from California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

Gray-bearded, with 13 grandchildren, he still makes concert tours for his loyal fans. “I’ve slowed down a little bit, not much,” said Mr. Haggard, who played two shows this week at the Birchmere concert hall in Alexandria.

He remains outspoken, but joked yesterday: “I have a lot of opinions I’d be afraid to expose this close to the White House.”

He is on good terms with at least one former resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. “George [Bush] Senior calls me and sings me ‘Happy Birthday,’ but I don’t know G.W.”

Describing himself as “very red, white and blue,” Mr. Haggard seems dissatisfied with the war on terrorism.

“I just wish we could find some of these things we went to Iraq to find — find some weapons of mass destruction, find Saddam Hussein, find Osama bin Laden, find something,” he said. “I’d like to see America proud and unafraid again.”

He keeps abreast of current affairs. During the war in Iraq, “I stayed glued to the TV all through the operation,” Mr. Haggard said, after wrapping up interviews with three television networks.

On his cowboy hat, he wears a military badge commemorating the 1991 Gulf war, but showed his independent streak yesterday, remarking quietly, “I’m a conservative, you might say, but that doesn’t mean that I go along with it.”

Asked if he ever imagined he would be feted at the Smithsonian, Mr. Haggard laughed.

“Not in my wildest dreams.”

But he said, “I’m only sorry that my mother and dad couldn’t be here to see it.”

Researcher John Sopko contributed to this report.

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