My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Spotlight Artist: Merle Haggard

There is a small group of performers, without whom it is impossible to imagine what country music would be like. Near the very top of this list is Merle Haggard, one of country music’s most talented and prolific singer/songwriters, and whose tremendous impact on the genre is indisputable.

He was born in Oildale, California on April 6, 1937, to parents who had migrated from Oklahoma during the Great Depression. His father Jim, who worked as a carpenter for the Santa Fe Railroad, died from a stroke in 1946. This traumatic and devastating event set nine-year-old Merle on the path of juvenile delinquency. He spent the next few years in and out of reform schools. At age 20, he was arrested for the attempted burglary of a tavern in Bakersfield, and was sentenced to one to fifteen years in the state penitentiary at San Quentin.

A few years before his burglary conviction, when he was 14 years old, Merle had the opportunity to attend a Lefty Frizzell concert, which helped to spark his interest in a career in music. Despite his tender age, Merle had already begun performing in local bars. During his incarceration at San Quentin, he was encouraged to pursue a music career by a fellow inmate nicknamed Rabbit. Rabbit escaped from the prison and was later returned and executed for killing police officer. This was one of the events that helped young Haggard to turn his life around. It was also the inspiration for his 1968 hit, “Sing Me Back Home”.

Haggard was released from San Quentin in 1960. He returned to Bakersfield and worked a variety of manual labor jobs while pursuing his musical dreams. He eventually got a gig playing at a Las Vegas club owned by Wynn Stewart, where he caught the attention of producer Fuzzy Owen, who signed Merle to his independent label, Tally Records. His first release was the modestly successful “Skid Row”, which was followed by a cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Sing A Sad Song”, which reached #19 in 1963. In 1965, he scored his first major hit with the Liz Anderson composition “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers”, which became his first Top 10 record, despite a competing version by Roy Drusky which was on the charts at the same time. In addition to providing Merle with a name for his road band, it also led to a contract with Capitol Records, which would be his label home for the next 13 years.

During these early years of his career, Haggard was based on the west coast and, along with Buck Owens, was instrumental in forging the Bakersfield Sound, which was a backlash against the more polished and highly-orchestrated Nashville Sound. In 1967 he scored his first #1 hit with another Liz Anderson (co-written with Casey Anderson) number called “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”. Though Haggard is well-known today for his convict songs, he was initially reluctant to sing and write about his incarceration, but was eventually convinced by Johnny Cash that doing so would prevent his past deeds from becoming tabloid fodder. His second #1 was the self-penned “Branded Man”, which was followed by “Sing Me Back Home” which also topped the charts. In 1968 he topped the charts with another prison song, “Mama Tried.”

Haggard’s best known song came in 1969. “Okie From Muskogee” was apparently intended as a joke, but struck a chord with those were fed up with the turbulence and protests of the sixties. Along with the follow-up release, the more combative “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, “Okie” established Haggard as a conservative icon. This image was further solidified with later records such as “Are The Good Times Really Over” and “Me and Crippled Soldiers”, a tune about flag burning which led to Merle’s split with Epic Records in 1989. In 1972 he received an unconditional pardon from California Governor Ronald Reagan. Ironically, in recent years Merle’s politics seem to have shifted considerably to the left, as he became an outspoken critic of the Iraq War and endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for president in 2008.

Merle Haggard was named Entertainer of the Year by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music in 1970. He has won 13 ACM awards, five CMA awards, and three Grammys, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. He has also scored 38 #1 hits, a feat surpassed only by Conway Twitty and George Strait. Although his commercial success began to decline dramatically beginning in the late 1980s, he has never stopped making music and remains an important and respected artist today. His latest album, Working in Tennessee, will be released on October 4th. We hope you will enjoy our spotlight coverage of the career of this iconic and sometimes controversial figure.

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10 responses to “Spotlight Artist: Merle Haggard

  1. Adam Price Country Music October 1, 2011 at 8:34 am

    I absolutely love Merle Haggard’s music and songs, and there’s a great deal of Australian singers out here which perform a lot of his songs in tribute to him great post on this great singer!

  2. Michael A. October 1, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Great choice. He’s one of the legends whose music I really enjoy, but actually know very little about. His catalog is so huge (That’s what she said.), I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to exploring it. I’m going to learn a lot this month.

    My first exposure to his music was in 1994 when I actually heard “In My Next Life” on the radio. I think there was also a tribute album for Merle Haggard released at the end of that year… might be a fun review to read.

  3. Paul W Dennis October 1, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Although he is not my favorite vocalist (I prefer more idiosyncratic vocalists like Ernest Tubb and Ebb Pierce), I firmly believe “The Hag” to be the greatest country artist of all-time and certainly among the most influential along with Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers

  4. Andrew Leprich October 1, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Great pick. I’m surprised you guys didn’t cover him until now. I own over twenty of his albums, but his discography is so expansive I’m sure there’s some good stuff I’m missing. Really looking forward to this month.

  5. Adam Price Country Music October 1, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    How many albums did he come out with all together, and are they readily avaialable still?… Would be great to hear all his songs, enjoy them and also learn from a great artist…

    • Occasional Hope October 2, 2011 at 3:43 am

      A lot of his albums are avilable on CD – many of them are on 2for1 reissues which are good value. We’ll be covering some of the best over the month, so keep reading.

  6. Adam Price Country Music October 2, 2011 at 5:07 am

    That’s great, thanks for that, would really like to know the most popular albums so I can track them down :-)

  7. luckyoldsun October 2, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Merle is so huge that you have to break him down to four periods/categories: (1) The young Merle on Capitol; (2) the middle-aged Merle on MCA; (3) the “aging”, weary Merle on Epic; and (4) the post-chart old-man Merle on Curb and various independent labels.
    For my money, classic Merle on Capitol records is still the greatest, most important–and timeless– stuff he ever did. The middle-age Merle on MCA is fine, but it much ot it definitely sounds dated. The Epic stuff is the most disposable. He actually improved in later years after radio and the major labels gave up on him and he could just do whatever he wanted to do.

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  9. Ken Johnson October 11, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    Merle Haggard’s face belongs on the “Mount Rushmore Of Country Music” along with Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Johnny Cash. His ability to put his true life experiences and feelings into his songs is unmatched. As a vocalist the emotion that he is able to evoke from the simplest of lyrics is amazing. Unlike today’s “pretty boy” manufactured and contrived country acts Merle lives the songs that he writes and sings. Merle never failed to acknowledge the country artists whose music inspired him. Tribute albums to two of his biggest influences Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills brought their timeless music to a new generation of fans.

    Merle’s Capitol recordings including many unreleased songs are now currently available on three excellent multi-CD boxed sets from the German Bear Family label. The British BGO label has made available Merle’s original Capitol albums via “two albums on one CD” compilations. BGO is also re-releasing his Epic albums in that same configuration.

    Unfortunately Merle’s MCA recordings (1977-1981) are a bit harder to come by. Most of those albums were available on CD in the late 1980’s but have since gone out of print though a few remain available on budget CD’s. Perhaps one day Bear Family will compile those albums in a box set too.

    Merle re-recorded many of his early Capitol hits in the 1990’s for Tree Productions. Those newer versions are available on dozens of budget CD’s. Buyer beware that many “Greatest Hits” or “Best Of” collections especially those from odd record labels bearing Merle’s name are not the familiar hit versions. Even the Epic “Super Hits” series contains Capitol remakes mixed with his original Epic hits.

    By the way Merle’s split with Epic Records was primarily due to his declining ability to consistently score hit records and sell albums By the late 1980’s the “new traditionalists” were taking over country music and competition for airplay was growing exponentially more intense. Unfortunately most of Merle’s albums and singles at that time do not rank among his finest work as excessive substance abuse contributed to the problem. Merle also took exception when the “suits” at Epic’s sister label Columbia Records released Johnny Cash from the label a couple of years earlier. Hag publicly aired his feelings about the situation which only increased the acrimony with label executives. Eventually the breaking point came.

    I look forward to revisiting Merle’s recorded catalog with you this month and discussing some of the finest country music ever made.

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