Fifty years ago, Merle Haggard – one of the originals of outlaw country – introduced “The Fightin’ Side of Me” to the world. The song was a follow-up single to the similarly patriotic “Okie From Muskogee,” which had catapulted Haggard to country mega-stardom just a few months earlier. 

Released as the first single and title track from the album The Fightin’ Side of Me in 1969, the song spent three weeks at No.1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles and received two CMA Award nominations for Song of the Year and Single of the year.

The Song That Solidified Merle Haggard’s Right-winged Image

Written by Merle Haggard himself, “The Fightin’ Side of Me” served as a response to the military action in Vietnam.

“They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me. Runnin’ down a way of life. Our fightin’ men have fought and died to keep. If you don’t love it, leave it. Let this song that I’m singin’ be a warnin’. When you’re runnin’ down our country, hoss. You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me,” the song goes.

And “The Fightin’ Side of Me” immediately broke in popularity upon release.

But did you know it wasn’t the song Merle Haggard wanted to release at that time? Hoping he could distance himself from the harshly right-wing image he had developed in the middle of the hippie-bashing “Muskogee,” Haggard wanted to take another direction and release “Irma Jackson” for his next single. It was a catchy, uptempo tune that sings about an interracial love affair.

Though it may sound like the perfect choice, the problem was that his record label doesn’t “believe the world is ready for this yet.” In fact, when the singer brought the song to Capitol Records, the executives were reportedly appalled. They were not interested in complicating Haggard’s conservative, blue-collar image. 

 Over the years, Haggard has always been more than willing to express disappointment over the controversy: “People are narrow-minded,” he once said in an interview. “Down South, they might have called me a nigger lover. I guess the world isn’t ready for that song yet.”

Instead, the record label encouraged their prized singer to record “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Haggard’s patriotic, bold anthem that lined up much more closely to his new post-“Okie” branding. With its brutal dismissal of anyone criticizing the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the song solidified the singer’s small-town, right-winged image. It went on to become one of the biggest hits of his career.

Several decades later and the lyrics are still relevant, with phrases like “And if you don’t love it, leave it” still get tossed around in the modern era.

“If I had to make my choice, I’d rather write a song that people may not agree with than one that they never hear at all,” Haggard said. “You’ve got to make people turn their heads and listen closer to you and maybe say to themselves, ‘What did he say?'”

While he may no longer be with us, the legacy Merle Haggard left behind lives on emblazoned thanks to his impressive musical career. And the story of this 1969 song movement is definitely one of the most illuminating tales of the legend’s career.

You can relive the magic of Merle Haggard in the video below.