When Merle Haggard released ''Okie from Muskogee'' 30 years ago, the song made him a right-wing hero. Issued at the height of the Vietnam War protests, it won him praise from conservatives for the line ''We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD.''
Haggard always said the hoopla was overplayed, claiming he intended the song as a kind of jest. And, today, this country legend cum rugged individualist says that conservatives - especially the anti-marijuana forces - have gone too far.
''America has sure gone to some sort of a police state in the last 10 years,'' says Haggard, who is at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington, Vt., tomorrow and Lowell Memorial Auditorium on Sunday.
He hasn't played in New England since 1990, mainly because the region used to serve as a connecting stop for his tours of Canada, which he has cut out temporarily. He says he's sick of the US ''zero tolerance'' laws, which make reentering the States an indignity.
''If they find a seed of marijuana in your car or bus, they'll run it all over the news,'' says Haggard, speaking from his home in northern California. ''I've got 30 people working for me. There is liable to be a seed of marijuana, so it makes it very uninviting to go into Canada, knowing that the United States is going to harass you coming back.
'They snatched some buses from people I won't name, and buses are not cheap,'' he adds, referring to the US customs officials. ''It costs us seven or eight years of our lives to pay for these buses, and they just take 'em. Like I say, you can't personally shake people down that work for you. I'm not going to do that. You don't know who's doing what and who isn't, but [the police] come on and this `zero tolerance' thing they've got going is really amazing. They've got private enterprise building prisons now. It's scary. It's overkill.''
Maybe Haggard could do a solo acoustic ''unplugged'' tour instead.
''That's not a bad idea. Yeah, they won't have nothin' to search,'' snaps Haggard, a grizzled 61-year-old (alias ''The Hag'') who is loaded with strong opinions and enjoys being cast as a proverbial outsider.
Take his feelings toward the Nashville establishment: Been there, done that. To put it mildly.
''I moved to Nashville for two years - in 1976 and '77 - and my record sales went down to about half what they had been,'' says Haggard, who emerged from the same Bakersfield, Calif., scene that spawned Buck Owens. ''So I got the hell out of there and my record sales went right back up. It was like living in the middle of a carnival. Hey, I don't mind coming to work and running the Ferris wheel once in a while, but I don't want to live right there. That's kind of the way it is down there. Your work becomes your entirety. I've never given my full entire self to this business. I give about half my time. And I'm not going to give any more than that.''
No wonder the Hag is branded a classic loner - an image the public has embraced during a career that has seen an astonishing 63 of his songs in the Top Ten of the country charts. Among his signature, baritone-rich tunes: ''Mama Tried,'' ''Workin' Man Blues,'' ''Sing Me Back Home,'' ''Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,'' and ''Today I Started Loving You Again.''
''I'll tell you what the public likes more than anything. It's the most rare commodity in the world - honesty. You just have to be honest with them and say, `Hey, I don't want to live in Nashville.' It's a nice city and has paid tribute to me and I owe it a lot. But I don't want to live there ... I want to make my music on the West Coast.''