Merle Ronald Haggard (born April 6, 1937) is an American country and Western song writer, singer, guitarist, fiddler, 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 and the unique mix with the traditional country steel guitar sound, new vocal harmony styles in which the words are minimal, 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. In 1994, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1997, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
Haggard's parents, James Francis and Flossie Mae, moved to California from their home in Checotah, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression, after their barn burned in 1934. They settled with their children, Lowell and Lillian, in an apartment in Bakersfield, while James Francis Haggard started working for the Santa Fe Railroad. A woman who owned a boxcar, which was placed in Oildale, a nearby town north of Bakersfield, asked Haggard's father about the possibility of converting it into a house. He reformed the boxcar, and soon after moved in, also purchasing the lot, where Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937. The property was eventually expanded by building a bathroom, a second bedroom, a kitchen and a breakfast nook in the adjacent lot.
His father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945, an event that deeply affected Haggard during his childhood, and the rest of his life. To support the family, his mother worked as a bookkeeper. His brother, Lowell, gave Haggard his used guitar as a gift when he was 12 years old. Haggard learned to play alone, with the records he had at home, influenced by Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. As his mother was absent due to work, Haggard became progressively rebellious. His mother sent him for a weekend to a juvenile detention center to change his attitude, which worsened.
Haggard committed a number of minor offences, such as thefts and writing bad checks. He was sent to a juvenile detention center for shoplifting in 1950. When he was 14, Haggard ran away to Texas with his friend Bob Teague. He rode freight trains and hitchhiked throughout the state. When he returned the same year, he and his friend were arrested for robbery. Haggard and Teague were released when the real robbers were found. Haggard was later sent to the juvenile detention center, from which he and his friend escaped again to Modesto, California. He worked a series of laborer jobs, including driving a potato truck, being a short order cook, a hay pitcher, and an oil well shooter. His debut performance was with Teague in a bar named "Fun Center," being paid US$5, with free beer. He returned to Bakersfield in 1951, and was again arrested for truancy and petty larceny and sent to a juvenile detention center. After another escape, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security installation. He was released 15 months later, but was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt. After his release, Haggard and Teague saw Lefty Frizzell in concert. After hearing Haggard sing along to his songs backstage, Frizzell refused to sing unless Haggard would be allowed to sing first. He sang songs that were well received by the audience. Due to the positive reception, Haggard decided to pursue a career in music. While working as a farmer or in oil fields, he played in nightclubs. He eventually landed a spot on the local television show Chuck Wagon, in 1956.
Married and plagued by financial issues, he was arrested in 1957 shortly after he tried to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse. He was sent to Bakersfield Jail, and was later transferred after an escape attempt to San Quentin Prison, on February 21, 1958. While in prison, Haggard discovered that his wife was expecting a child from another man, which pressed him psychologically. He was fired from a series of prison jobs, and planned to escape along with another inmate nicknamed "Rabbit". Haggard was convinced not to escape by fellow inmates. Haggard started to run a gambling and brewing racket with his cellmate. After he was caught drunk, he was sent for a week to solitary confinement where he encountered Caryl Chessman, an author and death row inmate. Meanwhile, "Rabbit" had successfully escaped, only to shoot a police officer and return to San Quentin for execution. Chessman's predicament, along with the execution of "Rabbit" inspired Haggard to turn his life around. Haggard soon earned a high school equivalency diploma and kept a steady job in the prison's textile plant, while also playing for the prison's country music band, attributing a 1958 performance by Johnny Cash at the prison as his main inspiration to join it. 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 he had ever felt.
According to Rolling Stone, "In 1972, then-California governor Ronald Reagan expunged Haggard's criminal record, granting him a full pardon."
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. The following year he had his first national top ten record with "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers", written by Liz Anderson (Mother of country singer Lynn Anderson) and his career was off and running. In 1966, Haggard recorded his first number-one song "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive", also written by Liz Anderson, which Haggard acknowledges in his autobiography remains his most popular number with audiences.
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, according to some Merle Haggard interviews decades later, actually written as a humorous character portrait. In one such interview, Haggard called the song a "documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time." However, 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 protesters. 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, it was a hit.
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. In 1969 the Grateful Dead began performing Haggard's tune "Mama Tried", which appeared on their 1971 eponymous live album. The song became a staple in their repertoire until the band's end in 1995. The Grateful Dead also performed Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" numerous times between 1971 and 1973. In addition, The Flying Burrito Brothers recorded and performed "White Line Fever" in 1971, and toured with "Sing Me Back Home" and "Hungry Eyes". Singer-activist Joan Baez, whose political leanings could not 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, dedicated to Bob Wills, which helped spark a permanent revival and expanded audience for western swing.
On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, shortly after "Carolyn" became another number one country hit for Haggard, then-California governor Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes. 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 on May 6, 1974.
In the fall of 1972, "Let Me Tell You about A Song," the first TV special starring Merle Haggard, was nationally-syndicated by Capital Cities TV Productions. It was a semi-autobiographical, musical profile of Haggard, akin to the contemporary "Behind The Music," produced and directed by Michael Davis.
In 1981, Haggard published an autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. That same year, he alternately spoke and sang the ballad "The Man in the Mask". Written by Dean Pitchford (whose other output includes "Fame", "Footloose", "Sing", "Solid Gold", and the musical Carrie), this was the combined narration/theme from the movie The Legend of the Lone Ranger, a box-office flop.
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.
"If We Make It Through December" turned out to be Haggard's last pop hit. Although he won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his 1984 remake of "That's The Way Love Goes", 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.
In 1989, Haggard recorded a song, "Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn", in response to the Supreme Court's decision to allow flag burning under the First Amendment. After CBS Records Nashville avoided releasing the song, Haggard bought his way out of the contract and signed with Curb Records, which was willing to release the song. Of the situation, Haggard commented, "I've never been a guy that can do what people told me...It's always been my nature to fight the system."
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".
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". 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 ailing, 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.
In April 2010, Haggard released a new album, I Am What I Am. Released to strong reviews, Haggard performed the title song on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in February 2011.
Haggard has endorsed 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.
Wives and children:
Haggard has been married five times, first to Leona Hobbs from 1956 to 1964. They had four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli, Noel. They divorced, and in 1965 he married singer Bonnie Owens, former wife of Buck Owens, and a successful country singer at the time. Haggard has credited her with helping him make his big break as a country artist. Haggard shared the writing credit with Owens for his hit "Today I Started Loving You Again", and has acknowledged, including on stage, that the song was about a sudden burst of special feelings he experienced for her while they were touring together. She also helped care for Haggard's children from his first wife and was the maid of honor for Haggard's third marriage. Haggard and Owens divorced in 1978. In 1978 Haggard married Leona Williams; they divorced in 1983. In 1985 Haggard married Debbie Parret, but they divorced in 1991. He married his current wife, Theresa Ann Lane, on September 11, 1993. They have two children, Jenessa and Ben.
Haggard has said he started smoking marijuana when he was 41 years old. He admitted that in 1983 he bought "$2,000 (worth) of cocaine" and partied for five days afterward, when he says he finally realized his condition and quit for good. He quit smoking cigarettes in 1991, and stopped smoking marijuana in 1995.
Haggard underwent angioplasty in 1995 to unblock clogged arteries. On November 9, 2008, it was announced that Haggard had been diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer in May of that year and underwent surgery on November 3, during which part of his lung was removed. Haggard returned home on November 8. Less than two months after his cancer surgery, Haggard played two shows on January 2 and 3, 2009, in Bakersfield at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, and continues to tour and record.
On December 19, 2006, the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved a citizen-led resolution to rename a portion of 7th Standard Road in Oildale as Merle Haggard Drive, which will stretch from North Chester Avenue west to U.S. Route 99. The first street travelers will turn onto when they leave the new airport terminal will be Merle Haggard Drive.
In 2006, Haggard was honored as a BMI Icon at the 54th annual BMI Pop Awards. During his songwriting career, Haggard has earned 48 BMI Country Awards, nine BMI Pop Awards, a BMI R&B Award, and 16 BMI "Million-Air" awards, all from a catalog of songs that adds up to over 25 million performances.
Merle Haggard accepted the prestigious award for lifetime achievement and "outstanding contribution to American culture" from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on December 4, 2010. At a December 5, 2010 gala in Washington, D.C. he was honored with musical performances by Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Kid Rock, Miranda Lambert and Brad Paisley. This tribute was featured on the December 28, 2010 CBS telecast of the Kennedy Center Honors. On June 14, 2013, the California State University, Bakersfield, honored Merle Haggard for his contributions to the arts with the honorary degree, Doctor of Fine Arts. Haggard stepped to the podium and said, "Thank you. It's nice to be noticed." On January 26, 2014, Haggard performed his 1969 song "Okie from Muskogee" at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards along with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Blake Shelton
Gary Keck, a chemistry professor at the University of Utah and an ardent fan of Haggard, introduced a series of chemical analogues of a biologically active natural product called bryostatin 1 to honor his idol's legacy.
Haggard's guitar playing and voice gives his country a hard-edged, blues-like style in many cuts. Although he has been outspoken in his dislike for modern country music, he has praised George Strait, Toby Keith and Alan Jackson. Keith has singled Haggard as a major influence on his career. The Youngbloods responded to "Okie from Muskogee" with "Hippie from Olema", in which, in one repetition of the chorus, they change the line "We still take in strangers if they're ragged" to "We still take in strangers if they're haggard". Nick Gravenites, of Big Brother and the Holding Company, paid Haggard a tongue-in-cheek tribute with the song, "I'll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle," later covered by other artists including Pure Prairie League. The Dixie Chicks paid 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 "How 'bout some music/She said have you got any Merle/That's when I knew she was my kind of girl." In 2000, Jackson and 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 & 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". Brooks & Dunn also reference Haggard in 1993's "Rock My World (little country girl)" off their Hard Workin' Man Album as they sing "Acts like Madonna but she listens to Merle/Rock my world little country girl." Red Simpson also mentions Merle and Buck Owens in his 1971 song "Hello, I'm a Truck". The last line in the song goes, "Well, I know what he's gonna do now/Take out that tape cartridge of Buck Owens and play it again/I dunno why he don't get a Merle Haggard Tape."
In 2005, Shooter Jennings mentioned him in the title track of his album Put the "O" Back in Country and later mentioned him in 2007 in his song "Concrete Cowboys." In 2006, Hank Williams III included Haggard as well as other country icons in the song "Country Heroes". Steve Goodman mentioned him, humorously but respectfully, in the song "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" (which he either co-wrote or did not co-write with John Prine). George Jones recorded two albums with him (Merle) and mentions "The Okie from Muskogee" in his song "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes". Lynyrd Skynyrd's song, "Railroad Song", references Haggard, "Well I'm a ride this train Lord until I find out/What Jimmie Rodgers and the Hag was all about". They also performed both a cover of "Honky Tonk Night Time Man" as well as their own take on the song with "Jacksonville Kid" (found on the 2001 CD reissue of the album) on the album, Street Survivors.
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.
On June 14, 2013, Merle Haggard was presented an honorary doctorate by California State University, Bakersfield. The doctor of fine arts honor, the first in CSUB's history, was conferred during School of Arts & Humanities commencement ceremonies.
Haggard performed his 1968 song Okie from Muskogee at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards on January 26, 2014 with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Blake Shelton.
Haggard has also greatly influenced the Carolina-born, Texas-raised indie Americana crooner Cryin' D.T Buffkin with his inclusion of jazz and rock 'n' roll elements into his music.