Country singer Merle Haggard resists current trends, maintains songs should have something to say
By JENI DODD • Tribune Staff Writer • February 13, 2009
The original bad boy of country music, Merle Haggard brings his songs of the common man to the Mansfield Theater stage at 7:30 tonight.
Famous for hits including “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” and “Working Man Blues,” Haggard is widely recognized as one the most important country artists to emerge from the 1960s.
Haggard was born in 1937, outside Bakersfield, Calif. His parents, Jim and Flossie, moved the family there after their Oklahoma farm burned. They lived in an old boxcar that they converted into a home.Haggard’s rebellious streak began when he was 9 after the death of his father. Lost and stunned by the death, Haggard began to act out, hopping freight trains and committing petty crimes.
Haggard’s talent for music proved a steadying influence for the troubled youngster. His father had been a musician and Haggard took to it, first as a Bob Wills fan, then idolizing Lefty Frizzell.
“For three or four years I didn’t sing anything but Lefty Frizzell songs,” Haggard told the Music City News. “And then, because Lefty was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers, I learned to imitate him, too.”
Haggard got a chance to see Frizzell perform when he was 14.”He was dressed in white — heroes usually are,”Haggard said.
His love of music wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble. By age 15, though innocent, he and a friend were picked up on robbery charges, leading to his first stint in jail. By the time he was 20, Haggard was doing time in San Quentin.
“Going to prison has one of a few effects,” he told Salon in 2004. “It can make you worse, or it can make you understand and appreciate freedom. I learned to appreciate freedom when I didn’t have any.”
After his release from San Quentin in 1960, he joined the Bakersfield country scene, a honky-tonk sound that was dramatically different from the slick and polished music coming out of Nashville.
Haggard joined Las Vegas star Wynn Stewart’s band in 1962 as a bassist.
Haggard soon recorded, “Sing A Sad Song,” a Stewart song, which went into the top 20. Subsequent singles didn’t do as well, until Haggard recorded the Liz Anderson song, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” which went into the Top 10 and brought him to the attention of Capitol Records. He proved himself a hit maker with three Top 10 singles in 1967, including his first No. 1, “The Fugitive.”
His next No. 1 song, “Branded Man,” was a self-penned description of the experiences of a man released from prison who is trying to put the experience behind him.
According to Haggard, Johnny Cash encouraged him to stop trying to hide his past and address it directly in verse.
“I was bull-headed about my career. I didn’t want to talk about being in prison,” Haggard recalls, “but Cash said I should talk about it. That way the tabloids wouldn’t be able to. I said I didn’t want to do that and he said, ‘It’s just owning up to it.'”
Cash introduced him on his variety show by saying, “Here’s a man who writes about his own life and has had a life to write about.”
Haggard’s songs opened a window on the dark life of prisoners and ex-cons.
Haggard wrote “Sing Me Back Home,” another No. 1 song in 1967, for a friend from prison “Rabbit,” who was executed after his escape plan led to the death of a prison guard.
“Mama Tried,” which reached the top of the charts in 1968, offered an apology to Haggard’s religious and hardworking mother.
By 1969, Haggard had won over a good portion of musicians and critics in the rock world, including Rolling Stone magazine. His songwriting took on a political bent, championing the common working man and woman.
“Working Man Blues,” which came out in 1969, became an anthem for the blue-collar worker.
Haggard’s most popular song, “Okie From Muskogee,” started as a joke, but resonated with those who weren’t speaking out at that time, the folks who weren’t involved in the anti-war movement, who didn’t smoke marijuana, didn’t burn their draft cards, didn’t grow their hair long and shaggy and were “proud to wave Old Glory down at the courthouse.”
“Okie from Muskogee” and Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me,” which challenged the anti-war protesters, made Haggard a political symbol.
In the decades that followed, Haggard’s hits slowed, but he already had firmly established himself as a legend, and a huge influence, not only in country music but in other musical genres.
In the mid-’90s, Haggard released an album of new music coinciding with a box set of Haggard music, “Down Every Road.”Through the years, Haggard has always been true to his voice, endearing him to his fans.
“I’ll tell you what the public likes more than anything,” he told the Boston Globe, “It’s the most rare commodity in the world — honesty.”