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.