As a performer and a songwriter, Merle Haggard was the most important country artist to emerge in the 1960s, and he became one of the leading figures of the Bakersfield country scene. While his music remained hardcore country, he pushed the boundaries of the music quite far. Like his idol, Bob Wills, his music was a melting pot that drew from all forms of traditional American music — country, jazz, blues, and folk — and in the process, developed a distinctive style of his own. As a performer, singer, and musician, he was one of the best, influencing countless other artists. Not coincidentally, he was the best singer/songwriter in country music since Hank Williams, writing a body of songs that became classics. Throughout his career, Haggard was a champion of the working man, largely due to his rough-and-tumble history.
It's impossible to separate Haggard's music from his life. He was born to James and Flossie Haggard on April 6, 1937. His parents moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression, converting an old boxcar into a home. Before their marriage, James played fiddle in local honky tonk bars. Flossie was a member of the Church of Christ, which led to her forcing her husband to stop playing the honky tonks. James died from a brain tumor when Merle was nine years old. After his father's death, Merle became rebellious. In an attempt to straighten her son out, his mother put him in several juvenile detention centers, but it had little effect on Merle's behavior. As a teenager, he fell in love with country music, particularly Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams. When he was 12 years old, Haggard was given his first guitar by his older brother; Merle taught himself how to play by listening to records that were lying around the house.
Even though he had begun to pursue music, Haggard continued to rebel, running away with his friend Bob Teague to Texas when he was 14 years old. A few months later, the pair returned to California, where they were arrested as robbery suspects. After the real thieves were caught, Haggard was sent back to juvenile hall, but he and Teague took off to Modesto, California. For a brief time, he did manual labor, was a short-order cook, drove a truck, and committed a series of small crimes. Soon after he moved to Modesto, Haggard made his performing debut with Teague at a bar named the Fun Center; the two were paid five dollars and given all the beer that they could drink.
By the end of 1951, Haggard had returned home and he was again arrested for truancy, as well as petty larceny. In the beginning of 1952, he was sent to Fred C. Nelles School for Boys in Whittier, California; again, he ran away. This time, the courts decided he was incorrigible and sent him to the high-security Preston School of Industry; he was released after 15 months. Shortly after his release, he and a boy he met at PSI beat up a local boy during an attempted robbery, and Haggard was sent back to PSI.
After getting out of PSI for the second time, Haggard had the first major event in his musical career. He went with Teague to see Lefty Frizzell in concert in Bakersfield. Before the show, he went backstage with several friends and he sang a couple songs for Frizzell. Lefty was so impressed he refused to go on-stage until Haggard was allowed to sing a song. Merle went out and sang a few songs to an enthusiastic response from the audience.
The reception persuaded Haggard to actively pursue a musical career. While he was working during the day in oil fields and farms, he performed at local Bakersfield clubs. His performances led to a spot on a local television show, Chuck Wagon. In 1956, he married Leona Hobbs; the couple moved into his family's old converted boxcar. Throughout 1957, Haggard was plagued by financial problems, which made him turn to robbery. At the end of the year, he attempted to rob a restaurant along with two other burglars; the three were drunk at the time. Believing it was three o'clock in the morning, the trio tried to open up the back door of the restaurant. However, it was 10:30 and the establishment was still open. Although the trio fled the scene, Haggard was arrested that day. The following day, he escaped from prison in order to make peace with his wife and family; later that day, he was recaptured. Haggard was sentenced to a 15-year term and sent to San Quentin prison.
Prison didn't immediately lead Merle into rehabilitation. He was fired from a series of prison jobs and planned an escape from the jail, but was talked out of it by fellow inmates. Nearly two years into his sentence, Haggard discovered that his wife was pregnant with another man's child. The news sent Haggard over the edge. Soon, he and his cellmate began a gambling racket and brewing beer in their cell. Before long, Haggard was caught drunk and was placed in isolation for a week. During his time in isolation, he had several conversations with Caryl Chessman, an author and a member of death row. The conversations and the time in isolation convinced Haggard to turn his life around. After he left isolation, he began working in the prison's textile plant and took some high-school equivalency courses; he was also allowed to play in the prison's country band. At his second parole hearing in 1960, Haggard was given a five-year sentence — two years and nine months in jail, two years and three months on parole; he left prison 90 days later.
Merle moved back in with Leona and returned to manual labor. In the meantime, he sang at local clubs at night. After taking second place at a local talent contest, Haggard was asked to become a relief singer for a band led by Johnny Barnett at one of the most popular Bakersfield clubs, Lucky Spot. Soon, Merle was making enough money playing music that he could quit his ditch-digging job. While singing with Barnett, he gained the attention of Fuzzy Owen, who owned the small record label Tally Records. Owen and his cousin Lewis Talley were instrumental in establishing Haggard's musical career. Owen made the first recording of Haggard, cutting a demo version of one of the singer's first songs, "Skid Row." Shortly after the recording, Haggard called Talley, who had praised him earlier in his career. Talley was able to land Haggard a job at Paul's Cocktail Lounge, which led to a slot on a local music television show.
During this time, Bakersfield country was beginning to become a national scene, largely due to the hit singles of Buck Owens. At a time when mainstream country was dominated by the lush, smooth countrypolitain sound of Nashville, Bakersfield country grew out of hardcore honky tonk, adding elements of Western swing. Bakersfield country also relied on electric instruments and amplification more than other subgenres of country, giving the music a hard, driving, edgy flavor. During the late '50s, Tommy Collins and Wynn Stewart were two of the Bakersfield artists to have hits, and both were influential on Haggard's career, musically as well as professionally. Haggard had admired Stewart's vocal style, and it helped shape his phrasing.
Early in 1962, Haggard traveled to Las Vegas to see Wynn Stewart's club show. Stewart was not at the club, having left to find a replacement bass player. During the show, one of Stewart's guitarists remembered Haggard and invited him to sing a couple of songs on-stage. Stewart walked in while Haggard was singing and was impressed, asking him to join his band as a bassist. For six months in 1962 and 1963, Merle performed with Stewart's band. During this time, Haggard heard Wynn's song "Sing a Sad Song" and asked the star if he could record it. Stewart gave him the song and Merle recorded it for Tally Records in 1963. Although Tally had minimal distribution, the record became a national hit, climbing to number 19 on the country charts early in 1964.
"Sam Hill," Haggard's second single, wasn't as successful, but a duet with Bonnie Owens, the former wife of Buck Owens, called "Just Between the Two of Us," broke into the Top 40. The next year, his version of Liz Anderson's "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" broke him into the Top Ten and established him as a budding star. Capitol Records bought out his contract with Tally and Merle released "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can," his first single for Capitol, in the fall of 1965. The single wasn't a success, scratching into the Top 50, but his next single, "Swinging Doors," was a smash hit, rocketing to number five in the spring of 1966. Late in 1965, Haggard began recruiting a backing band and named them the Strangers.
Haggard became a genuine country superstar in 1966, with three Top Ten hits, including "Swinging Doors." "The Bottle Let Me Down" climbed to number three and "The Fugitive" (later retitled "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive") became his first number one. He was voted the Top Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music Awards, while he and Bonnie were named the Top Vocal Group for the second year in a row.
Haggard's songwriting was beginning to blossom and audiences embraced his music, sending his "I Threw Away the Rose" to number three early in 1967, beginning a remarkable streak of 37 straight Top Ten hits, including 23 number one singles. "I Threw Away the Rose" was followed by four straight number one hits — "Branded Man," "Sing Me Back Home," "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde," and "Mama Tried," which was heard in Killers Three, a movie that featured Haggard's debut as an actor. With the exception of "Bonnie and Clyde," the songs represented a change in Haggard's songwriting, as he began to directly address his troubled history. By 1970, he was talking about his time in San Quentin in the press, yet these songs represented the first time he had mentioned his past directly. Each single was a bigger hit than the previous song, which encouraged Haggard to continue writing in a more personal style.
Throughout 1968, Haggard's star continued to rise, with two number one hits ("Bonnie and Clyde," "Mama Tried") and the number three "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am," as well as four albums. Later that year, he recorded his first conceptual album, Same Train, Different Time. Released in early 1969, the record was not only an affectionate salute to one of Haggard's heroes, it reflected a fascination with American history and a desire to expand his music by adding stronger elements of Western swing, jazz, and blues.
Merle released three singles in 1969 — "Hungry Eyes," "Workin' Man Blues," and "Okie from Muskogee" — and all three reached number one. In particular, "Okie from Muskogee" sparked a tremendous amount of attention. An attack on the liberal hippies who represented American pop culture in the late '60s, the song struck a chord in audiences across the country, just missing the pop Top 40. Because of the song, Haggard was asked to endorse George Wallace, but he refused. "Okie from Muskogee" cemented the singer's stardom, and he won a large amount of awards in 1969 and 1970. In both years, he was named the Top Male Vocalist by the ACM and the Strangers were voted the best band, while the new Country Music Association voted him Entertainer of the Year and Top Male Vocalist in 1970.
Haggard released a sequel to "Okie" called "The Fightin' Side of Me" at the beginning of 1970, and it also shot to number one. That year, he released 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 the '70s. Throughout 1971 and 1972, the hits kept coming, including "Soldier's Last Letter," "Someday We'll Look Back," "Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)," "Carolyn," "Grandma Harp," "It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad)," and "I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me." In 1972, the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, granted Haggard a full pardon. The following year, his hit streak continued, and he scored his biggest hit, "If We Make It Through December," which peaked at number 28 on the pop charts. As his reign on the top of the country charts continued in 1974, he played on Bob Wills' last album, For the Last Time. Wills died in 1975, leaving Merle his fiddle.
Haggard stayed with Capitol Records until 1977, and never once did his grip on the American audience slip during his tenure there. During his time on MCA afterward, he continued to have a number of hits, but his work was becoming slightly inconsistent. His first two singles for the record label, "If We're Not Back in Love by Monday" and "Ramblin' Fever," hit number two and he continued to have hits with the label throughout the end of the decade and the first part of the '80s. "I'm Always on a Mountain When I Fall" and "It's Been a Great Afternoon" were number two hits in 1978. In 1979, he only had two hits, while in 1980, two selections from the Clint Eastwood movie Bronco Billy reached the Top Three, "The Way I Am" and "Misery and Gin"; Haggard also appeared in the film. The two hits paved the way for his two biggest singles with MCA, the number one duet with Eastwood "Bar Room Buddies" and the number one "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink." Early in 1981, Haggard had a Top Ten hit with "Leonard," a tribute to his old friend Tommy Collins.
Later that year, Haggard published his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home; he also left MCA and signed with Epic Records. Once at Epic, he began producing his own records, which gave the music a leaner sound. His first two singles for the label, "My Favorite Memory" and "Big City," were number one hits. The following year, he released a duet album with George Jones called A Taste of Yesterday's Wine, which featured the number one single "Yesterday's Wine" and the Top Ten "C.C. Waterback." From 1983 until the beginning of 1985, Haggard continued to score number one hits, including the number one duet with Willie Nelson "Pancho and Lefty."
Merle's chart fortunes began to change in 1985 as a new breed of singers began to dominate the chart. Nearly every one of the artists, from George Strait to Randy Travis, was greatly influenced by Haggard, but their idol's new singles now had a tough time reaching the top of the charts. He had two Top Ten hits in 1986, and 1987's Chill Factor was a success, spawning the Top Ten title track and "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star," which would prove to be his last number one hit. In 1990, he signed with Curb Records, but he continued to have trouble reaching the charts; 1994 spawned his last modest hit, "In My Next Life," which reached the Top 60.
When his contract with Curb ran out, Haggard, hoping for better promotion and greater artistic freedom, signed with Anti, a subsidiary of the Epitaph punk-pop label. His first effort for Anti was released in late 2000; titled If I Could Only Fly, the gentle acoustic album was greeted with strong reviews. Haggard released one more album for Anti, 2001's Roots, Vol. 1, before departing. After 2003's Like Never Before, Haggard returned to his old home, EMI, the following year, releasing a collection of American pop standards called Unforgettable at the end of that year. Chicago Wind appeared in the summer of 2005. Haggard then turned to bluegrass, releasing the appropriately titled The Bluegrass Sessions, which featured appearances by Marty Stuart, Aubrey Haynie, and Alison Krauss (among others) in 2007. In 2008 he got the Bear Family treatment with the release of the multi-disc box sets Hag: The Studio Recordings 1969-1976 and Hag: Concepts, Live & the Strangers: The Capitol Recordings 1968-1976. I Am What I Am, an album of new songs, appeared from Vanguard Records in 2010. A second Vanguard album, Working in Tennessee, co-produced by Haggard with Lou Bradley at Haggard's own northern California studio, appeared the following year in 2011. Four years later, Haggard teamed up with his old friend Willie Nelson for Django and Jimmie, their first collaboration in 20 years. Preceded by the single "It's All Going to Pot," the album debuted at number one on the Billboard country chart upon its June 2015 release. Less than a year later, exactly on his 79th birthday (April 6, 2016), Haggard died of complications from pneumonia at his home in Palo Cedro, California.
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 shows a great debt to his work. That fact stands as a testament to his great talent even more than his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine