Workin’ Man’s Hero A Look at the Life and Career of Merle Haggard

For more than thirty years Merle Haggard has enriched our lives with some of the greatest country music ever written and recorded: “Swinging Doors,” “The Fugitive,” “Mama Tried,” “Okie from Muskogee,” “Big City”–the list is endless. “(Today) I Started Loving You Again,” which Haggard recorded as a B-side to 1968’s “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” reportedly has been recorded by more than 400 singers. In all, Haggard’s racked up 38 Number One singles and a house full of music industry awards.

Merle Haggard is arguably the single most important country music singer and songwriter to emerge in the 1960s. To many stone-country fans, he’s considered the last link in the chain of the truly great artists who helped to shape and define country music. His songs are part autobiographical and part observation of the human condition. Much like Woody Guthrie, another musician with strong Oklahoma ties, Haggard has painted a series of audio murals, if you like, of America’s last several decades. With a very wide brush stroke he’s covered a breadth of topics with his songwriting: politics, patriotism, rounders and ramblers, inter-racial love, and much, much more.

Haggard is a people watcher. His genius therein lies in his keen sense of observation and his ability to articulate his discoveries so deftly. A conversation with Haggard can leave even the most brilliant conversationalist at a loss for words. When speaking with him, one wonders if something he or she says will end up a line in one of the Hag’s songs. He can be downright intimidating. After all, he is Merle Haggard. And his life reads like a character from a John Steinbeck novel.

On April 6, 1937, Merle Ronald Haggard entered this world. A few years prior to his birth, James and Flossie Haggard, along with their two elder children, emigrated West from Checotah, Oklahoma to California’s San Joaquin Valley on the heels of the Great Depression. Landing in Oildale, James worked a variety of jobs to support his family before settling in as a carpenter for the Santa Fe Railroad (Haggard’s silver tour bus bears the train line’s logo). The elder Haggard converted an abandoned boxcar into a small but comfortable home in which he and Flossie raised their family.

James was reported to be a fine fiddler and musician while Flossie Haggard, a strict Church of Christ member, preferred sacred music. Recalls Haggard in a 1993 interview with Nashville broadcaster Dan Miller, “All of the Haggard family were musicians. Dad had the talent and was able to sing like Jimmie Rodgers. (He) sang bass in church. I remember him playing ’Cripple Creek’ on the fiddle. There were a lot of connections between music and sin back then. Most of the music I heard him play was church music.” Ironically, when Flossie was pregnant with Merle, she is said to have prayed for her son to inherit his father’s musical abilities.

Flossie’s prayers were answered. Merle fell under the spell of music at an early age. While in first grade, he began taking violin lessons, but he preferred to learn fiddle tunes rather than formal violin music. Merle’s life in Oildale seemed idyllic–he spent hours fishing with his father on the Kern River and going for long, leisurely drives together. Then Merle’s world fell apart. Jim Haggard suffered a series of strokes and died during the summer of 1946.

Merle was just nine years old when his father died, and that event had a profound effect on Haggard. In an interview with Ralph Emery a decade ago, Haggard talked candidly about his loss, “My dad. I think about him every day. Many times I’d like to walk up to him and ask him something. (After his death) it was real lonely at home in those days.” Perhaps unable to understand, let alone accept his father’s death, Haggard took on the world. At age 10, he and a friend hopped a freight train to Fresno. The pair was picked up by railroad authorities and taken to a detention center.

Once Merle had a taste of the real world, he wanted more. Disinterested and bored with formal education, Merle was in search of a different type of knowledge. With Flossie working a full-time job to support her young son, Haggard was left alone with little supervision, thus enabling him to pursue an education on his own terms. Merle’s siblings Lillian and Lowell, now grown, tried to help control him, but Merle seemed intent to chart his own course.

Haggard theorizes, “It seemed that early in my life I craved to do things that was not really normal for a kid to want to do. I wanted to ride freight trains. And then when I heard those Jimmie Rodgers songs, I was really sure I wanted to ride freight trains.” In retrospect, Haggard conjectures that he was preparing for a different kind of life. Continues Merle, “Early in my life I think that I had some premonition of what was going to occur because it seemed like everything I did was just for the experience a songwriter might need later on.”

Running parallel with Merle’s bouts with the law was his musical development. His brother, Lowell, lent him a two dollar guitar, and Haggard set about teaching himself how to handle the instrument by chording along with old 78 records. At age 14, Haggard set off with his friend, Bob Teague, bound for Texas. Merle had high hopes of meeting his new musical hero, Lefty Frizzell, who was about the hottest thing in country music at the time. (Frizzell, however, had left Texas more than a year before Haggard’s road trip.) After an adventure-packed trip, the two headed back to L.A. and were picked up by police as robbery suspects. Although the pair was innocent (this time), Haggard spent several days in jail. “After that,” Haggard later said, “I was in and out of trouble, nothing very serious, but once they get your name on record you’re gone.”

Merle’s next adventure took him to Modesto, where he and Teague harvested hay for a dollar and a quarter a day. While in Modesto, Haggard made his first real money playing music. At a bar called the Fun Center, the two made five bucks a night plus all the beer they could drink singing Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams songs.

Haggard’s rough and rowdy ways landed him in a series of reform schools and juvenile halls–many of which he escaped from. Most of his offenses were petty: truancy violations, joy riding in “borrowed cars,” and the like. But at age 15, the California justice system deemed Merle “incorrigible” and he was sent to the Preston School of Industry (PSI) near Stockton, where he remained for fifteen months.

“I wasn’t really a mean fella,” Haggard explains. “What I was doing was mainly trying to be older than I was. When I was 14, I wanted to be 18. When I was 18, I wanted to be 21. Instead of just dreaming about it, I actually went out and tried to be that.” He continues, “I knew that as long as I didn’t go over the line and hurt someone I knew I could probably pull out of it. It was a quest for knowledge. Experience. I wanted to know what it was like to be in a jail. How can a guy sing about a jail if he didn’t know what happened in there? I was like a guy on research for song information. It’s hard to say what I was thinking about at the time. But I think I was after knowledge.”

In 1953, Merle was sent back to PSI for beating up a neighborhood boy. After his release for this second offense, Merle finally met his idol. Frizzell had booked into the popular night spot, the Rainbow Gardens. Some of Haggard’s friends went backstage that evening and arranged for Merle to meet Lefty. He not only met the hot young country star, but also had an opportunity to sing for him. Frizzell was, to say the least, impressed with Merle’s ability. Haggard recalled that evening in a 1976 interview for Penthouse magazine, “Just as I finished up, one of the club owners came by and told Lefty it was time (to go on stage), and Frizzell said ’I want this kid to sing a song out there before I go on.’ The owner looked at Lefty like he was crazy and told him, ’Hey, that crowd didn’t pay to hear their own local yokel sing. They came to hear Frizzell.’ But Lefty refused to go on if I wasn’t allowed to sing, so he got his way.”

The crowd’s reaction, combined with Lefty’s support, appeared to work like a tonic on Haggard, and he settled down somewhat. At age 17, he was making a living by working on a farm and in the oil field. At night, he played all the local hot spots in the Bakersfield area including the Lucky Spot, the Blackboard, and the High Pockets. He even married and started a family. However, his sense of adventure soon resurfaced. A few more scrapes with the law, more months in jail, and finally, Haggard went too far. Drunk on cheap red wine, he and some buddies bungled a robbery attempt and were caught trying to get away. That event, combined with his previous record (and numerous escapes from correctional facilities) was the end of the line for Haggard. He was sent to San Quentin.

If Haggard was in fact on a quest for knowledge, he was about to begin work on his doctorate. Merle estimates that between the ages of 14 and 21, he spent a total of five years in “the joint.” And just like the lyrics in one of his best-known songs, “Mama Tried,” he turned 21 in prison. But unlike the fellow in the song he did make parole–on the third pass–and in 1972, he was granted a full pardon for his crimes by then-California governor Ronald Reagan. Jokes Haggard, “I am the only man, I believe, who was sentenced to the state prison and voted Man of the Year by the same county.”

When Haggard was released from San Quentin in 1960, he began working for his brother, Lowell, digging ditches. He also resumed his musical pursuits, picking up extra money on the Bakersfield club circuit. He landed steady gigs at a couple of clubs–High Pockets and the Lucky Spot–and soon gave up his day job. He formed his own band and worked briefly in late ’62 and early ’63 with Wynn Stewart’s outfit.

Buck and Bonnie Owens (who were once married, but not at this time) lent Haggard a hand up and Haggard even did a brief stint with Owens’ Buckaroos. But it was Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owen, regular fixtures on the California country music scene, who were to impact Haggard’s life dramatically.

The ardent fan of Lefty’s that he was, Haggard’s voice too closely resembled that of his idol, and Fuzzy Owen encouraged Merle develop his own distinctive singing style. Fuzzy also owned Tally Records and put out Haggard’s first single in 1962, one of Haggard’s own compositions titled “Skid Row.”

His follow-up single, written by Wynn Stewart, was “Sing a Sad Song.” The song received not only local airplay but national attention as well and managed to crack Billboard’s Top 20 chart. Merle also released a duet with Bonnie Owens, “Just Between the Two of Us,” which fared well on the charts in late 1964. Haggard recorded a few more songs for Owens’ label before the big dogs were on him. His fourth chart single, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” written by Liz Anderson, broke the Top Ten and Haggard was on his way.

Capitol Records’ country chief, Ken Nelson, offered Haggard a deal with the prestigious West Coast label. Nelson’s “Stable of Stars” boasted one of the most impressive rosters at the time: Jean Shepard, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sonny James, Buck Owens and others enjoyed highly successful careers on the label. Out of loyalty and gratitude for what Fuzzy had accomplished for him, Haggard initially refused Nelson’s offer. He did eventually decide to sign with Capitol and was in their Hollywood studio in April 1965 for his first session.

His first single from that session, “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can” managed to crack to Top 50. One year later, he had his first Top Five single with “Swinging Doors.” He followed that up with “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and by the end of 1966 he had his first Number One with “The Fugitive.” That song represented a watershed for Haggard, according to his one-time wife and singing partner Bonnie Owens in an interview with Dan Cooper, “After ’Fugitive’ he knew where he was going.”

The ensuing years for Haggard were nothing short of phenomenal. He was ever-present on the charts with nearly all of his singles making high marks. He toured constantly, won awards by the truck loads and even appeared in a major motion picture, Killer’s Three.

In the late ’60s, Haggard decided to go public with his prison record. He feared that someday somebody would reveal his checkered past and it was best to do so himself. Exactly when and where he went public with it is uncertain, but writer Dan Cooper found a first reference to Haggard’s prison record in a July 1968 story in Music City News. He chronicled his youthful adventures in songs such as “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Mama Tried.” There seemed to be no apparent negative effect on Haggard’s career, if anything, he gained even more credibility for being someone who had “been there.”

Haggard was writing and recording profusely throughout the latter part of the ’60s–“Hungry Eyes,” “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Okie from Muskogee” all topped the charts. By decade’s end, he’d amassed eight No. 1 singles and five Top Five singles. Haggard also took the time to record a pair of outstanding tribute albums honoring two of his musical mentors. Released in 1969, Same Train, Different Time was a lovely two-record set of songs made famous by Jimmie Rodgers. Merle provided spoken introductions to several of the songs on the album, roughly chronicling Rodgers’ short life. More important than Haggard’s outstanding delivery of the material was the fact that he helped to introduce Rodgers to a new generation of country music fans.

With the dawn of a new decade, Haggard showed no signs of cooling off. In April 1970 he commenced work on a second tribute album. This time, however, his honoree was alive and well. According to Haggard, “During the 1940s and early 1950s in California, especially in Bakersfield, Bob Wills was a national hero.” Haggard again picked up the fiddle and spent months learning to play the feisty little instrument. Band members recall him walking up and down the isle of his tour bus, practicing for hours on end. What made this project special for Haggard was that he was able to pull in members of Wills’ Texas Playboys for the recording session. Through Merle, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World introduced yet another one of country music’s most influential stylists to a new generation of fans. In the ensuing years, Haggard himself would employ several of these musicians and include a nice set of Wills’ music in concert.

In the fall of that same year, Merle picked up the CMA’s award for Entertainer of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year. Album and Single of the Year honors went to his ’60s anthem, “Okie from Muskogee.” During the 1970s, Haggard had 33 chart singles with only a handful failing to reach the Top Ten. Merle experimented with various styles throughout the 1970s, incorporating elements of Western Swing, Dixieland and Jazz into his sound. He continued to write the lion’s share of his hits, but would from time to time turn to other writers for material such as Dolly Parton and his old pal, Lefty Frizzell. Merle, true to form, left his indelible mark on those songs as well.

In the late ’70s Haggard switched from Capitol to MCA Records, where he remained until 1981, and continued to produce sizeable hits including, “It’s Been a Great Afternoon,” “Red Bandana” and “I Just Think I’ll Stay Here and Drink.” In the 1980s Haggard also appeared in the NBC-TV mini-series Centennial and the Clint Eastwood film, Bronco Billy, which produced two Top Five singles, “Misery and Gin” and “The Way I Am.”

In the early 1980s, Haggard moved over to Epic and scored several solid hits, including, “My Favorite Memory,” “Big City,” “Someday When Things Are Good” (co-written with his wife at the time, Leona Williams), and “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star.” During his tenure with Epic, Haggard also joined forces with several artists including George Jones, Janie Fricke and Willie Nelson. With Nelson he scored a Number One hit in 1983 with Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty,” which also won the CMA’s Vocal Duet of the Year honors.

A myriad of problems besieged Haggard in the ’80s. The deaths of his mother and long-time friend Lewis Talley, a failed marriage, the IRS and other personal problems all took their toll on Haggard, who was now approaching 50. As the New Traditionalist movement caught fire in the mid-’80s, a lot of young turks cited Haggard as a major influence on their own musical style. Regrettably, there didn’t appear to be room on the charts for the real deal. Declining record sales and sketchy chart success only added to Haggard’s burdens.

Merle performing at the Workin’ Man’s Show at Fan Fair 1997
Merle once again switched labels–this time to Curb Records in 1990–and released one album that made little impact on country’s new audience. For the next few years Merle worked the road steadily and set about the task of getting his life right again. In recent years Haggard released a pair of fine albums for Curb and was honored with two tribute albums, Mama’s Hungry Eyes and the critically-acclaimed Tulare Dust. In 1994 Merle was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Since Haggard published his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home (with Peggy Russell) in 1981, there’s been talk off and on of a film adaptation of the book. Recent reports have a movie about Haggard’s life in the works. Tom Epperson and Sling Blade star and screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton are reportedly working on the script. It should be one heck of a movie.