Merle Haggard Biography
Merle Ronald Haggard (nicknamed "The Hag"; born April 6, 1937 in Bakersfield, CA) is an American country music singer, guitarist and songwriter.
Emerging from prison in the 1960s, Haggard was one of the early innovators of the Bakersfield Sound. With his hard biting electric guitar, he almost single-handedly introduced country to the electric sound. By the 1970s, he was aligned with the growing outlaw country movement, and has continued to release successful albums through the 1990s and into the 2000s. His work in familiar country themes – jail, betrayal, drinking and wandering – include a directness that reflects his own life experience. His deep, grumbling voice and his guitar work gives his country a blues-like quality in many cuts.
Haggard's parents moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression; at that time, much of the population of Bakersfield was made up of economic refugees from Oklahoma and surrounding states. Haggard's father died when Merle was 9, and Merle began to rebel against his mother. Authorities put him in a juvenile detention center. Haggard's older brother gave him a guitar when Merle was 12, and he taught himself to play. In 1951, Haggard ran away to Texas with a friend but returned that same year and was arrested for truancy and petty larceny. He ran away from the next juvenile detention center to which he was sent and went to Modesto, California. He worked odd jobs - legal and not - and made his performing debut at a bar. Once he was found again, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security installation. Shortly after he was released, 15 months later, Haggard was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt.
After his second release, Haggard saw Lefty Frizzell in concert with his friend Bob Teague and sang a couple of songs for him. Lefty was so impressed, he allowed Haggard to sing at the concert. The audience loved Haggard, and he began working on a full-time music career. After earning a local reputation, Haggard's money problems caught up with him, and he was arrested for a robbery in 1957. He was sent to prison in San Quentin for 15 years. Even in prison, Haggard was wild. He planned an escape but never followed through, and he ran a gambling and brewing racket from his cell. Merle attended three of Johnny Cash's concerts at San Quentin. Cash inspired Haggard to straighten up and pursue his singing. Several years later, at another Cash concert, Haggard came up to Johnny and told him "I certainly enjoyed your show at San Quentin." Cash said "Merle, I don't remember you bein' in that show." Merle Haggard said, "Johnny, I wasn't in that show, I was in the audience." While put in solitary confinement on death row, Haggard encountered author and death row inmate Caryl Chessman. Haggard had the opportunity to escape with a fellow inmate nicknamed "Rabbit". Haggard passed on the chance to escape. The escape was successful. The man who escaped later shot a policeman and was returned to San Quentin and put to death. Chessman's predicament along with Rabbit's inspired Haggard to turn his life around, and he soon earned his high school equivalency diploma, kept a steady job in the prison's textile plant and played in the prison's band. He was released in 1960 and in March 1972 was pardoned by then California governor Ronald Reagan. Once released, Haggard said it took about four months to get used to being out of the penitentiary and that, at times, he actually wanted to go back in. He said it was the loneliest feeling he'd ever had.
Upon his release, Haggard started digging ditches and wiring houses for his brother. But soon he was performing again and then began recording with Tally Records. His first song was "Skid Row", just as the Bakersfield Sound was developing in the area, as a reaction against the over-produced honky tonk of the Nashville Sound. In 1962, Haggard wound up performing at a Wynn Stewart show in Las Vegas and heard Wynn's "Sing a Sad Song". He asked for permission to record it, and the resulting single was a national hit in 1964.
Haggard released a series of successful singles in the early 1960s, including "Just Between the Two of Us" (duet with Bonnie Owens) and "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers", both songs written by Liz Anderson. He then signed to Capitol Records and released "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can" to limited sales. In 1966, however, his second Capitol single, "Swinging Doors", was a Top Five hit and Haggard had become a nationally known superstar. During the late 1960s, Haggard's chart success was consistent and impressive. "The Bottle Let Me Down", "The Fugitive", "Branded Man", "Mama Tried", "Sing Me Back Home", "Hungry Eyes," "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde", and "I Threw Away the Rose" are among the more well-remembered titles. "Mama Tried" and "Killer's Three Theme" sung by Merle were part of the soundtrack to the 1968 film Killers Three, which also included Haggard's acting debut.
In 1968, Haggard's first tribute LP Same Train, Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, was released to great acclaim.
"Okie From Muskogee", 1969's apparent political statement, was actually written as an abjectly humorous character portrait, a "documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time, and I mirror that. I always have. Staying in touch with the working class" (Phipps 2001). However, he said later on the Bob Edwards Show that "I wrote it when I recently got out of the joint. I knew what it was like to lose my freedom, and I was getting really mad at these protestors. They didn't know anything more about the war in Vietnam than I did. I thought how my dad, who was from Oklahoma, would have felt. I felt I knew how those boys fighting in Vietnam felt." Later, Alabama Gov. George Wallace asked Haggard for an endorsement, which Haggard declined. However, Haggard does express sympathy with the "parochial" or conservative way of life expressed in "Okie" and songs such as "The Fightin' Side of Me" (ibid). It should be noted, however, that after "Okie" was released, Haggard wanted to release a self-penned song entitled "Irma Jackson" about an interracial couple; the single was quashed by his record company, although Tony Booth went on to record it in 1970.
Regardless of exactly how they were intended, "Okie From Muskogee", "The Fightin' Side of Me", and "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" were hailed as anthems of the silent majority and presaged a trend in patriotic songs that would reappear years later with Charlie Daniels' "In America", Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA", and others. But other Haggard songs were appreciated regardless of politics: the Grateful Dead began performing Haggard's tune "Mama Tried" in 1969, and it stayed in their regular repertoire thereafter; singer-activist Joan Baez, whose political leanings couldn't be more different from those expressed in Haggard's above-referenced songs, nonetheless covered "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried" in 1969. The Everly Brothers also used both songs in their 1968 country-rock album Roots.
Haggard's next LP was A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or My Salute to Bob Wills), which helped spark a revival of western swing.
In 1972, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan gave Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes. Haggard often brags that few figures in history can become public enemy No. 1 and man of the year in the same 10-year period.
During the early to mid 1970s, Haggard's chart domination continued with songs like "Someday We'll Look Back", "Carolyn", "Grandma Harp", "Always Wanting You" and "The Roots of My Raising". He also wrote and performed the theme song to the TV series Movin' On, which gave him a further top-ten country hit. The 1973 recession anthem "If We Make It Through December" cast Haggard back to being a champion of the working class.
Haggard was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977.