Merle Ronald Haggard (born April 6, 1937) is an American country music singer, guitarist and songwriter.
Despite serving a prison term in the early 1960s, Merle Haggard has become one of the true giants of country music, as a singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist. 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.
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'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 13), he was sent to a juvenile detention center (In Haggard's 40 #1 Hits CD song book).
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. Shortly after he was released, 15 months later, Haggard was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt.
After his third release, Haggard saw Lefty Frizzell in concert with his friend, Bob Teague and sang a couple of songs for him. Lefty was so impressed that he allowed Haggard to sing at the concert. The audience loved 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 prison in San Quentin for 10 years.
Even while in prison, Haggard was wild, running 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'd ever had. Haggard was later 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 great 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." (Phipps 2001).
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 does express sympathy with the "parochial" way of life expressed in "Okie" and songs such as "The Fightin' Side of Me" (ibid).
It should be noted, however, that 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. It should also be noted that 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 other Haggard 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.
In 1972, then-Gov. 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 TV series Movin' On, which in 1975 gave him another #1 country hit.
The 1973 recession anthem "If We Make It Through December" furthered Haggard's status as a champion of the working class.
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.
"If We Make It Through December" turned out to be Haggard's last pop hit. He published an autobiography called Sing Me Back Home. Although he won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for 1984's a new kind of honky tonk had begun to overtake country music, and singers like George Strait and Randy Travis had taken over the charts. Haggard's last No. 1 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 and Randy Travis. 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", where he said "How 'bout some music / She said have you got any Merle / That's when I knew she was my kind of girl. Country music artists Alan Jackson and George Strait sang "Murder On Music Row" in 2000. The song gained attention for It's criticism of mainstream country trends. They mentioned him in the song by saying "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 a number called "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." Even George Jones praised him in the song "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" in 1985.He sang the "Fightin Side Of Me."
Haggard has been married five times and divorced four times. His former wives are: Leona Hobbs, married 1956 and divorced 1964 with four children; Bonnie Owens, married 1968 and divorced 1978; Leona Williams, married 1978 and divorced 1983; Debbie Parret, married 1985 and divorced 1991; He is currently married to Theresa Ann Lane, who he married in 1993 and they have 2 children. Haggard still resides in Bakersfield, CA.
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."
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.
In 2006, Haggard was back on the radio, in a duet with Gretchen Wilson, "Politically Uncorrect". He also featured on "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag" on Eric Church's debut album.
On April 24, 2006 Haggard's former wife Bonnie Owens died in Bakersfield, CA due to Alzheimer's disease. She was 76.
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.
Haggard's Oildale home, made from a converted box car, is still lived in just south of Norris Road.
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 3 other concerts were canceled as well, however he was back on the road in June and successfully completed a tour going through to August.
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.