The fightin' side of Merle Haggard -- The country legend gets political with his new album ''Chicago Wind''

A couple of years ago, Merle Haggard — legendary for such love-it-or-leave-it hippie-bashing hits as ”Okie From Muskogee” and ”Fightin’ Side of Me” — made news with ”That’s the News,” a song that took a skeptical view of the Iraq war and its media coverage. His new album, Chicago Wind, is a bit on the slicker side, but it too has a couple of potentially controversial numbers, in the antiwar ”Let’s Rebuild America First” and the anti-Patriot Act ”Where’s All the Freedom.” Haggard sounds almost apologetic. ”I said to [producer Jimmy] Bowen, ‘Why don’t we leave that stuff off, and for once do an album that’s totally about music and doesn’t have any political undertones?’ But he says the American Haggard fan wants to hear my opinions as much as the music.” He offers a suit-yourself shrug.

Trying to figure out the Bakersfield maverick’s politics has been a favorite guessing game of country fans for four decades. In the ’60s, his poetic songs about poverty and hard times, like the stunning ”Hungry Eyes,” won applause from folkies and liberals — who dumped him when ”Okie” went to No. 1. His independent streak hasn’t changed: In his shows, Hag takes disgusted nightly digs at ”G.W.” (”Can’t he get just one smirk into a smile?”), but as his favorite modern president he names Reagan (who, as California governor, pardoned Haggard for the felonies that landed him in San Quentin). This singer would no sooner commit to a party than he would to a prepared set list.

”There are things I go for on both sides of the fence. And both of ’em disappoint me.” It’s an endemic condition. ”Somebody asked my mother, ‘Can you describe your son in a paragraph?’ She said, ‘I can in one word. Unpredictable.’ And I come by it honestly — but I also plan it. I intend to take a different route this morning than yesterday, and I’m not gonna leave at the same time. And I won’t worry about the next show until I get on stage. You might even trick the devil once in a while, if nobody knows what you’re gonna do.”