Merle Ronald Haggard (April 6, 1937 in Bakersfield, California), known as “The Hag”, 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 1990s and into the 2000s. Haggard has been one of the best and most influential songwriters in country music since Hank Williams. His work in familiar country themes includes a directness that reflects his own life experience. His deep, grumbling, voice and dazzling 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 nine, 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 twelve, 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, fifteen 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 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 fifteen years. Merle attended three of Johnny Cash’s concerts at San Quentin. Cash inspired Haggard to straighten up and pursue his singing. 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 later pardoned. 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”. 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 Train: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, was released to great acclaim.
In 1969’s apparent political statement, “Okie from Muskogee”, 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 stayed in touch with the working class.” Haggard does express sympathy with the “parochial” or conservative way of life expressed in “Okie” and songs such as “The Fightin’ Side of Me”. 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.
Haggard’s next LP was A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the Word (or My Salute to Bob Wills). In 1972, then-Governor Ronald Reagan gave Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes. Haggard often brags that few figures in history can become public enemy number one and man of the year in the same ten-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 Raisin’”. The 1975 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.
By the 1980s, Haggard’s popularity was waning in pop markets. He published an autobiography called Sing Me Back Home. Although he won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for 1984’s “That’s The Way Love Goes”, a new kind of honky tonk had begun to overtake country music, and singers like George Strait and Randy Travis had taken over the charts. Haggard’s last Number One hit was “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star” from his smash album, Chill Factor in 1988..
Although he has been outspoken in his dislike for modern country music, he has praised newer stars such as Strait and Travis. The Dixie Chicks paid him tribute in their 2002 song “Long Time Gone”, which criticizes Nashville trends: “We listen to the radio to hear what’s cookin’ / But the music ain’t got no soul / Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard,” with the following lines mentioning Johnny Cash and Hank Williams in the same vein.
In 2000, Haggard made a comeback of sorts, signing with the independent record label Anti and releasing the spare If I Could Only Fly to critical acclaim. He followed it in 2001 with Roots, Vol. 1, a collection of Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Hank Thompson covers, along with three Haggard originals. The album, recorded in Haggard’s living room with no overdubs, featured Haggard’s longtime band mates, The Strangers, as well as Frizzell’s original lead guitarist, Norman Stephens.
In October 2005, Haggard released his latest album, Chicago Wind, to mostly positive reviews. The album contained an anti-Iraq war song in October 2005 entitled “America First,” in which he lament’s the nation’s economy and faltering infrastructure, applauds its soldiers, and sings, “Let’s get out of Iraq, and get back on track.”
Even when success eluded him, Merle Haggard’s music remained some of the most consistently interesting and inventive in country music. Not only have his recordings remained fresh, but each subsequent generation of country singers show a great debt to his work. That fact stands as a testament to his great talent even more than his induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame.