Merle Ronald Haggard (born April 6, 1937) is an American country music singer, guitarist, instrumentalist, and songwriter. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard and his band "The Strangers" helped create the Bakersfield Sound, which is characterized by the unique twang of Fender Telecaster guitars, vocal harmonies, and a rough edge not heard on the more polished Nashville Sound recordings of the same era.
By the 1970s, Haggard was aligned with the growing outlaw country movement, and has continued to release successful albums through the 1990s and into the 2000s. His songs display unflinching personal honesty about such universal themes as love, loss, patriotism, regret and redemption. In 1997, Merle Haggard was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame for his song Okie from Muskogee.
Merle Haggard was born in Bakersfield, California in 1937. His parents, Flossie Mae Harp and James Francis Haggard, moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. At that time, much of the population of Bakersfield consisted of economic refugees from Oklahoma and surrounding states. Haggard spent his childhood in Oildale, a hardscrabble suburb of Bakersfield, home to many of the workers in the adjacent Kern River Oil Field.
Haggard's father died when Merle was nine years old, and Merle soon began to rebel by committing petty crimes and truancy. As a result of being caught shoplifting in 1950 (at age thirteen), he was sent to a juvenile detention center.
In 1951, Haggard ran away to Texas with a friend, but returned that same year and was again arrested, this time for truancy and petty larceny. He ran away from that juvenile detention center to which he was sent and went to Modesto, California. He worked odd jobs?legal and not?and began performing in a bar. Once he was found again, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security installation. He was released fifteen months later and was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt.
After his fourth release, Haggard saw Lefty Frizzell in concert with his friend, Bob Teague. After hearing Haggard sing along to his first two songs Frizzell allowed Haggard to sing at the concert. The audience enjoyed Haggard and he began working on a full-time music career. After earning a local reputation, Haggard's money problems caught up with him. He was arrested for robbing a Bakersfield tavern in 1957 and was sent to the San Quentin state prison for three years.
Even while in prison, Haggard ran a gambling and brewing racket from his cell. Merle attended three of Johnny Cash's concerts at San Quentin. Seeing Cash perform 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, Haggard encountered author and death row inmate Caryl Chessman. Haggard had the opportunity to escape with a fellow inmate nicknamed "Rabbit" but passed on it. The inmate successfully escaped, only to shoot a police officer and return to San Quentin for execution. Chessman's predicament along with Rabbit's inspired Haggard to turn his life around. He soon earned a high school equivalence diploma, kept a steady job in the prison's textile plant, and played in the prison's band.
Upon his release in 1960, 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 had ever had. On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, Haggard was pardoned by Governor Ronald Reagan.
Upon his release, Haggard started digging ditches and wiring houses for his brother. Soon he was performing again, and later began recording with Tally Records. The Bakersfield Sound was developing in the area as a reaction against the over-produced honky tonk of the Nashville Sound. Haggard's first song was "Skid Row." 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.
In 1968, Haggard's first tribute LP Same Train, Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, was released to acclaim. "Okie From Muskogee", 1969's apparent political statement, was actually written as an abjectly humorous character portrait. Haggard called the song a "documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time." 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 has expressed sympathy with the "parochial" way of life expressed in "Okie" and songs such as "The Fightin' Side of Me". After "Okie" was released, Haggard wanted to release a self-penned song titled "Irma Jackson" about an interracial couple; the single was quashed by his record company, although Tony Booth went on to record it in 1970. Haggard has spoken publicly, most recently on a January 2008 episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, about a song he wrote for Hillary Clinton called "Hillary."
Regardless of exactly how they were intended, "Okie From Muskogee", "The Fightin' Side of Me", and "I Wonder If They Think of Me" were hailed as anthems of the so-called "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 Haggard's other songs were appreciated regardless of politics: in the late 1960s and early '70s the Grateful Dead began performing Haggard's tunes "Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home" and they 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.
On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, shortly after "Carolyn" became another number one country hit for Merle, Governor Ronald Reagan gave Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes. Haggard often quips 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 television series Movin' On, which in 1975 gave him another number one country hit. The 1973 recession anthem "If We Make It Through December" furthered Haggard's status as a champion of the working class. Haggard appeared on the cover of Time Magazine on May 6, 1977.
Haggard was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977. His deep, grumbling voice and his guitar work gives his country a blues like quality in many cuts.
Country star Willie Nelson believed the 1983 Academy Award-winning film Tender Mercies, about the life of fictional singer Mac Sledge, was based on the life of Merle Haggard. Actor Robert Duvall and other filmmakers denied this and claimed the character was based on nobody in particular. Duvall, however, said he was a big fan of Haggard.
The song "If We Make It Through December" turned out to be Haggard's last pop hit. Haggard published an autobiography called Sing Me Back Home in 1981. Although he won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for 1984's new kind of honky tonk, newer singers had begun to take over 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 George Strait, Toby Keith, Kenny Hinson, Weston Hinson, and Alan Jackson. Keith has singled Haggard as a major influence on his career. The Dixie Chicks paid him tribute by recording Darrell Scott's 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. Collin Raye paid him tribute with the song "My Kind Of Girl," when he sang the lines "How 'bout some music / She said have you got any Merle / That's when I knew she was my kind of girl." In 2000, Alan Jackson and George Strait sang "Murder On Music Row," which criticizes mainstream country trends: "The Hag wouldn't have a chance on today's radio / Because they committed murder down on music row." In 2005, the country rock duo Brooks and Dunn sang "Just Another Neon Night" off their Hillbilly Deluxe album. In the song Ronnie Dunn said "He's got an Eastwood grin and a too early swagger / Hollerin' turn off that rap / And play me some Haggard." In 2006, Hank Williams III included Haggard as well as other country icons in the song "Country Heroes". David Allan Coe mentioned him in the 1975 song "You Never Even Called Me By My Name." Even country music legend George Jones has repeatedly called Haggard his "second favorite country singer" (next to Hank Williams) and has recorded two albums with him. Elvis Costello references Haggard on the song "The Big Light" from the critically-acclaimed album "King of America", where he sings "I didn't even touch the light-switch 'cos I knew that I would see/ The Haggard face that would be staring back at me". For emphasis, the sleeve notes capitalize the H in Haggard. Hello Saferide references Haggard in the song ?Nothing Like You?, remembering listening to it the first night with her ex-lover.
In 2006, Haggard was back on the charts in a duet with Gretchen Wilson, "Politically Uncorrect" He is also featured on "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag" on Eric Church's debut album. The song was also written by Eric Church, who said that Haggard has been a huge influence on his life.
Merle Haggard Drive, Oildale, California
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 bandmates The Strangers as well as Frizzell's original lead guitarist, Norman Stephens. In December 2004, Haggard spoke at length on Larry King Live about his incarceration as a young man and said it was "hell" and "the scariest experience of my life."
Haggard's number one hit single "Mama Tried" is featured in the 2003 film Radio with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Ed Harris as well as in Bryan Bertino's "The Strangers" with Liv Tyler. In addition, his song "Swingin' Doors" can be heard in the 2004 film Crash and his 1981 hit "Big City" is heard in Joel and Ethan Coen's 1996 film "Fargo" and in the 2008 Larry Bishop film "Hell Ride", executive produced by Quentin Tarantino.
In October 2005, Haggard released his album, "Chicago Wind", to mostly positive reviews. The album contained an anti-Iraq war song titled "America First," in which he laments the nation's economy and faltering infrastructure, applauds its soldiers, and sings, "Let's get out of Iraq, and get back on track." This follows from his 2003 release "Haggard Like Never Before" in which he includes a song, "That's The News" questioning the strength and validity of President Bush's proclamation that the war in Iraq was over.
On December 19, 2006, the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved a citizen-led resolution to re-name a portion of 7th Standard Road in Oildale "Merle Haggard Drive." Merle Haggard Drive will stretch from North Chester Avenue west to Highway 99. The first street travelers will turn onto when they leave the new airport terminal will be Merle Haggard Drive.
Haggard released a bluegrass album, The Bluegrass Sessions, on October 2, 2007. In 2008, Haggard was going to perform at Riverfest in Little Rock, Arkansas, but the concert was canceled because he was experiencing some sickness, and three other concerts were canceled as well; however, he was back on the road in June and successfully completed a tour that ended on October 19.
Merle Haggard endorses Fender guitars and has a Custom Artist signature model Telecaster. The guitar is a modified Telecaster Thinline with laminated top of figured maple, set neck with deep carved heel, birdseye maple fingerboard with 22 jumbo frets, ivoroid pickguard and binding, gold hardware, abalone Tuff Dog Tele peghead inlay, 2-Colour Sunburst finish and a pair of Fender Texas Special Tele single-coil pickups with custom-wired 4-way pickup switching. He also plays six string acoustic models. In 2001, C.F. Martin & Company introduced a limited edition Merle Haggard Signature Edition 000-28SMH acoustic guitar available with or without factory-installed electronics.
On April 24, 2006 Haggard's former wife Bonnie Owens died in Bakersfield, CA due to Alzheimer's disease. She was 76.
On November 9, 2008, it was announced that Haggard had been diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer and had undergone surgery on November 3 to have part of his lung removed. Haggard returned home on November 8 and is said to be doing better. Less than 2 months after having surgery to remove his lung cancer Haggard played two shows on January 2 and 3rd, 2009 in Bakersfield, CA at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace and is planning to continue to tour and record.