The American country singer and songwriter Merle Haggard (1937–2016) was one of the most successful artists in the history of the genre, with 100 singles reaching the U.S. country-music charts and 38 of those ascending to the number-one position between 1966 and 1987. Haggard had lived the hard life other performers in the genre only sang about, drawing on his rural migrant background and on his own stint in California's San Quentin prison in several hit songs.
By drawing from his life experiences, Merle Haggard expanded the range of country music lyrics, helping to develop country's hard-edged “Bakersfield sound.” His inspirations ranged from jazz to the Western swing jazz–country hybrid promoted by bandleader Bob Wills that he encountered as a young musician in California's Central Valley. Bucking standard studio practices, Haggard preferred working with his longtime band, the Strangers, rather than with session musicians while recording. Although he was known among politically conservative listeners for the patriotism and support for traditional values he expressed in his 1969 hit, “Okie from Muskogee,” he also recorded songs that took populist ideas in a different direction as well as songs that had no political content at all.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, in Oildale, California, near Bakersfield. His parents, James and Flossie Haggard, were Oklahomans who abandoned their farm during the widespread drought known as the Dust Bowl and moved west. After settling in an abandoned railroad boxcar that they renovated (and where Merle was born), the family managed to escape the grinding poverty experienced by other migrants when James Haggard found work as a carpenter and railroad employee. Merle's older sister Lillian first noticed the boy's musical inclination: when he was very young, he would react to Western swing on the radio by tapping his feet. A series of violin lessons as a child marked his first formal musical training. Then, in 1946, the family fortunes changed as a result of James Haggard's sudden death from what has been reported as a brain tumor or a strike on the head.
The death of his father hit the young Merle hard. One of his most famous songs, “Mama Tried” (1968), recounted how “no one could steer me right, but Mama tried.” Flossie Haggard, a fundamentalist Christian, tried to restrain the behavior of her growing son (and to dissuade him from music as a career), but by age 14, Haggard had run away to Texas with a friend. On his return to Bakersfield, he was repeatedly arrested for minor crimes and spent time in a total of 17 youth institutions and vocational schools by his estimate. Not willing to take orders from others, Haggard would often escape, although the brief freedom led to a worsening situation with law enforcement and the juvenile court system.
Haggard began performing in Bakersfield bar bands in the mid-1950s. A fan of honky-tonk singer Lefty Frizzell, he learned to imitate Frizzell's unique brand of country, and he was invited on stage to perform at one of the performer's local shows. Another inspiration for Haggard was Jimmie Rodgers, the “Blue Yodeler” of the late 1920s and early 1930s, whose blues-influenced songs of railroad life resonated with his wandering ways.
In 1956, Haggard married Leona Hobbs, with whom he would have four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli, and Noel. Meanwhile, a year into the marriage and facing financial problems, he and a friend made the questionable decision to rob a restaurant. Drunk at the time, the pair did not realize that the restaurant was still open as they broke in through the back door. Haggard was captured and in early 1958 was sent to San Quentin prison under a 15-year sentence.
Haggard spent more than two years at San Quentin, and he would draw on his experiences there in songs such as “Sing Me Back Home,” about a death-row prisoner consoled by the power of music; “Branded Man”; and “I Made the Prison Band.” He heard other inmates being raped and witnessed two murders, and the reality of prison life inspired him to reform. Haggard was paroled after 27 months and resumed his musical career.
Haggard's path toward stardom began when he joined the band of Wynn Stewart, an early pioneer of the Bakersfield sound who had gained national popularity. He was signed to the small California Tally label and was offered a contract with Los Angeles–based Capitol Records after two of his Tally releases, “Sing a Sad Song” and “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” (the latter composed by country singer Liz Anderson), charted in the top 20 on the national country-music charts despite minimal promotional support.
Haggard signed with Capitol with the stipulation that the label acquire Tally and hire its owner, Charles “Fuzzy” Owen, as his manager. Capitol agreed, and the partnership with Owen endured for the rest of Haggard's career.
Haggard quickly became a country favorite, with fans enjoying the clean, electric guitar-driven Bakersfield sound captured by Capitol producer Ken Nelson. That sound contrasted sharply with the smooth, string-dominated “countrypolitan” style emanating from the country music capitol of Nashville at the time. Haggard's honky tonkthemed “Swinging Doors” reached the top five in the spring of 1966, and later that year “The Fugitive” (later retitled “I'm a Lonesome Fugitive”) became his first number-one single. Although Haggard penned most of his major hits, that song, too, was composed by Liz Anderson. Between 1967 and 1969, Haggard enjoyed seven more number-one singles, including the searing anthem of poverty “Hungry Eyes” (1968), which he intended as a tribute to his mother's struggles.
Among Haggard's top hits was the anti-counterculture “Okie from Muskogee,” with its declaration that “we don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee; we don't take our trips on LSD.” It is unclear how deeply the ideas expressed in the song reflected the songwriter's own beliefs; his politics shifted several times over his career, and in his later years he was a visible marijuana user. In fact, as he told a reporter in 1974 (as quoted in a Country Music Hall of Fame biography), “Son, the only place I don't smoke is Muskogee.” After “Okie from Muskogee” became a hit, Haggard hoped to release as a single the very different “Irma Jackson,” a song about interracial love. He was overruled by Capitol, however, and the studio selected instead the patriotic and bellicose “The Fightin' Side of Me,” which reached number one in 1970.
Haggard largely avoided political themes in subsequent songs, although there were exceptions such as the sardonic “Rainbow Stew” (recorded live at Anaheim Stadium in 1981). Many of his 16 number-one songs during the 1970s were propelled by the new musical flexibility of his band, the Strangers, which could handle anything from ballads to the heavy New Orleans jazz influence apparent in such songs as “Everybody's Had the Blues” (1973). Haggard spearheaded this new direction with his 1970 album homage to Bob Wills, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, for which he undertook four months of intensive fiddle practice and drove his bus-mates to sleep with pillows over their heads. He also released a Jimmie Rodgers tribute album, Same Train, a Different Time.
Haggard was married four more times after his marriage to Hobbs dissolved in 1964 over charges of abuse. In 1965, he married Bonnie Owens, the ex-wife of country singer Buck Owens. Although that marriage ended in 1973, the couple remained friends, and Owens often appeared as a backup vocalist on Haggard's recordings. In 1978, Haggard married songwriter Leona Williams, who co-wrote several of his hit songs. That marriage dissolved in acrimony in 1983, and the following year he married Debora Parret. Haggard's final marriage, to Theresa Lane in 1993, produced children Jenessa and Ben, the latter who became a country musician. Asked what could be learned about him from his songs, Haggard was quoted as saying in the London Times: “That I'm a contrary old son of a bitch, I guess.”
Haggard's long list of awards began with an Academy of Country Music (ACM) honor as Most Promising Male Vocalist in 1965; in all he won 19 awards from that California-based industry organization. In 1970 he was named Entertainer of the year both by the ACM and by the rival Nashville-based Country Music Association. Haggard won four Grammy awards including a Grammy Hall of Fame honor (for “Mama Tried”) in 1999 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. He was inducted into the prestigious circle of Kennedy Center Honors recipients in 2010 and continued to remain active, releasing the critically acclaimed duo album Django & Jimmie with the similarly jazz-influenced singer Willie Nelson in 2015.
Haggard died after complications of pneumonia at his home in Palo Cedro, California, on April 6, 2016. The U.S. House of Representatives renamed the post office located at 1730 18th Street, Bakersfield, the Merle Haggard Post Office Building in his honor.
Cantwell, David, Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, University of Texas Press, 2013.
Haggard, Merle, with Tom Carter, My House of Memories, HarperCollins, 1999.
New York Times, April 7, 2016, Bill Friskics-Warren, “Country Music Outlaw and Poet of the Common Man,” p. A1.
Times (London, England), April 8, 2016, “Merle Haggard; Hard-Living Country Music Star Who Was Dubbed the ‘Outlaw’ and Chronicled His Troubled Childhood in a String of Hits,” p. 42.
Country Music Hall of Fame, https://web.archive.org/web/20100723233746/ http://www.countrymusichalloffame.org/full-list-of-inductees/view/merle-haggard (December 2, 2017), “Merle Haggard.”
Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/pictures/merle-haggard-20100301 (December 2, 2017), “Merle Haggard.”□