Merle Haggard will forever be remembered as a true American treasure whose work often reflected his complicated life – his problems with the law, five marriages, six children and the complexities a life in the music business yielded.
Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, they said about him:
“Merle Haggard stands, with the arguable exception of Hank William, as the single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history.”
Upon his death, The New York Times agreed: “In Mr. Haggard’s case the sound defined a body of work as indelibly as that of any country singer since Hank Williams.”
Rolling Stone said Haggard: “composed and performed one of the greatest repertoires in country music, capturing the American condition with his stories of the poor, the lost, the working class, heartbroken and hard-living.”
And also at that time, The Tennessean called Haggard “the working man’s poet, an architect of the Bakersfield Sound and a fiercely independent artist who influenced country music like few others.”
Needless to say, much has been written about the importance of the singer-songwriter. But If nothing had ever been reported about Haggard and we only had his music, we would still know the man, his loves, his pains, his demons and his life.
He was his own documentarian of the challenges he faced in covert autobiographical compositions such as “The Running Kind” and “Rambling Man” about his restlessness which then lead to his incarceration and many songs including “Branded Man” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Mama Tried,” in which he announced he turned 21 in prison. Always there was love in his life and he had lots to say on the subject in such “songs as “Silver Wings,” “Always Wanting You,” “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “It’s Not Love.” Woven in there were the drinking and gambling songs chronicling more of Haggard’s troubled times.
All those troubles, though, ultimately lead Haggard to 40 number ones on the Billboard Country charts, two Grammy awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, multiple Country Music Association Awards and many from the Association of Country Music. Not to mention the Kennedy Center Honor in 2010.
Haggard confirmed in his 1981 autobiography Sing Me Back Home that prison, indeed, became part of the life experience that made him who he was as a person and creative force.
“I believe I survived prison not because it taught me a lesson – though I learned a lot – but because I had to prove I could survive,” he said in the book. “I believe I got my life together in spite of prison, maybe even in defiance of it. I will say this now, and it’ll sound strange, but prison was an experience I’m glad I had. I could have done without it, for damn sure, but for all it gave me and all it took away, I believe the score was on the plus side…”
Music was always the silver lining.
In Haggard’s book, his mother Flossie described Merle as unpredictable, but he was always a music lover. Haggard said his sister Lillian told him their mama said even before he was born, music would be his birthright. She named him Merle after a musician friend of the family.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California. “No More Trains” records the boxcar that was his first home. He claims life was fairly normal until the death of his father James when Merle was just 9-years-old turned his world upside down and its crushing blow delivered far reaching results.
Once Haggard’s daddy was gone, the boy just had no use for discipline or authority and no desire to attend school. The year after his father died, he hopped his first of many freight trains with his schoolmate Billy Thorpe, riding to Fresno. Of course they were caught.
School may not have interested Haggard, but music definitely did.
Explaining his relationship with music in his book, Haggard said, “Like a dear friend, it’s puzzled me at times, but never disappointed me. Like a good woman, it’s given me comfort and pleasure, and asked only respect and attention in return. Like a religion, it has offered me a reason for being when other things have slipped away. But most of all, it has become an extension of my feelings, allowing me that little piece of immortality everybody dreams about.”
His mother started him on violin at an early age, but Haggard, being as opinionated as he was, insisted upon learning the fiddle. It would serve him well in the future.
Then when his older brother Lowell brought a beat up guitar home when Merle was 12, Merle gravitated toward the instrument. As he began to play, he noticed people paid attention and for a shy boy, he found the guitar helped give him a voice.
By age 14, Haggard had been in and out of juvenile hall several times for truancy. Out mostly, because he had escaped – another problem. So early in 1952 he was sent to a juvenile detention center in Whittier, California called the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys, surrounded by barbed wire.
After several escapes from Nelles, Haggard was transferred to Preston School of Industry in Stockton, serving his time out there, despite one escape.
By the mid ‘50s, Haggard was beginning to work the club scene in Bakersfield. He had married his first wife, Leona Hobbs, in 1956 and just when life seemed as if it was fairly normal, Haggard got himself arrested for one of his car “borrowing” schemes and landed in the Ventura County Jail for a year. That was 1956 and he lamented that he missed the birth of his first child, Dana.
No matter what, trouble followed Haggard and he couldn’t resist its lure. By January 1958 he had earned a place in San Quentin.
It wasn’t until Haggard slipped up there and started a beer making and gambling operation with another inmate and was put into isolation, that he had an epiphany.
“Whatever it was, I came off isolation determined to do something positive for Merle Haggard,” he stated in Sing Me Back Home.
He had been denied parole once already since he had been lazy and unrepentant. He cleaned up his act quickly and applied for the toughest job in the prison – at the textile mill – and he was granted parole the next time.
Released in 1960, Haggard immediately went to work for his brother Lowell, digging ditches and wiring houses. That didn’t last very long as Merle’s musical talents began to shine through very quickly.
An opportunity to play at one of the premier local clubs, the Lucky Spot, not only liberated Haggard from his day job, but also united him in a band with Fuzzy Owen who co-owned the small record label Tally Records along with Lewis Talley. Owen and Haggard would become lifelong associates.
Before he knew it, Haggard was performing in Las Vegas, playing bass for Wynn Stewart. And that’s where he found the first song he wanted to cut. Stewart was singing his “Sing a Sad Song” one night in the Nashville Nevada Club and although Stewart had had plans to record it, Haggard convinced him to give it to him to record.
That first single went to No. 19 on the Billboard Country Charts. Simultaneously, celebrating that success, Haggard was struggling with his demons of gambling and ended up returning home to Bakersfield without a penny to his name.
“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” written with Red Simpson made the top 20 and the one after that, “My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers,” written by Liz Anderson hit No. 10.
Thanks to Buck Owens who made the request to cut Haggard’s own “Swinging Doors,” Merle took a good look at his own song and thought if Buck Owens wanted to record it, it must have merit. He kept it for himself and sure enough, it reached No. 5. in 1966. He was well on his way.
It was that same year Haggard formed his band, calling them The Strangers, a nod to the previous hit he had had. Between the years 1969 and 1987, they were voted Band of the Year by the Academy of Country Music Awards eight times.
“I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” by Liz and Casey Anderson hit No. 1 in 1966 and by 1980 he amassed 25 No 1 records, including his very popular 1969 crossover hit “Okie From Muskogee.” By 1989 there were 40 No 1’s.
But in 1997 Haggard told Country Weekly it was his pardon from Governor Ronald Reagan on July 7, 1971 that was his greatest accomplishment. For the boy who had taken the wrong path so many times, it was an important symbol of respect.
“Twelve men voted on it and unanimously gave me a pardon – the youngest man to ever receive a pardon in the state of California. I thought it was the greatest thing that could happen to me. You can receive awards, but to have those people – those hard-nosed politicians – vote yes in my favor, says somebody liked what we did,” said Haggard who was then pardoned a second time in 2009 by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Also in 1971, he returned to San Quentin to perform for the inmates, just as Johnny Cash had when he was one, himself.
Haggard told Country Weekly Magazine in 1998 what he liked most about what he did musically included his songs “Okie From Muskogee,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Big City,” “Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and even some he didn’t write like “Misery and Gin,” “All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers,” “Down Every Road” and “The Fugitive.”
In Haggard’s later years it would be family that he valued most. He doted on the two children he had with his fifth wife Theresa Lane, despite the fact that he continued to perform to sold out audiences in over 100 shows a year. But admitting that in his earlier days he had been so caught up in his troubles and his career that he hadn’t always been the father he should have been, he set about to deepening his relationships with his older children from his previous marriages. In the last year of his life he was also able to enjoy his grandchild Delaney from Jenessa, his daughter with Theresa.
By the time of his death at age 79 on his birthday, April 6, 2016, Haggard had recorded more than 100 albums, had a star on Hollywood Blvd., had been on the cover of Time Magazine and even received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from California State University of Bakersfield. He was one of the most celebrated country music stars in the world; a true icon.
In the ’97 Country Weekly story, as Haggard was turning 60, he said he believed in predestination.
“There’s a reason for everything,” he said. “The route my life took was meant to be that way in order for it to be the way it is now. It’s been incredible, and frankly, if He pulled the switch tomorrow, it’s been a great ride.”