Merle Ronald Haggard (born April 6, 1937) is an American country music singer, guitarist, instrumentalist, and songwriter. 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. In 1997, Merle Haggard was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame for his song "Okie from Muskogee".
Early lifeMerle 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 spent his childhood in Oildale, a hardscrabble suburb of Bakersfield, home to many of the workers in the adjacent Kern River Oil Field.
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 at a women's lingerie store in 1950 (aged thirteen), he was sent to a juvenile detention center. 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
. Again running away from the juvenile detention center, he 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. He was released fifteen months later but was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt.
After his fourth release, Haggard saw Lefty Frizzell in concert with his friend, Bob Teague. After hearing Haggard sing along to his first two songs Frizzell allowed Haggard to sing at the concert. The audience enjoyed Haggard and he began working on a full-time music career. After he had earned a local reputation, Haggard's money problems caught up with him. He was arrested for attempting to rob a Bakersfield tavern in broad daylight in 1957 and was sent to the San Quentin state prison for three years.
Even while in prison, Haggard ran a gambling and brewing racket from his cell. 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.
Haggard attended three of Johnny Cash's concerts at San Quentin. Seeing Cash perform encouraged 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."
Haggard 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 had ever had. On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, Haggard was pardoned by Governor Ronald Reagan.
Country successUpon 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 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." 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. 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.
On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, shortly after "Carolyn" became another number one country hit for Haggard, 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, 1977.
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...which was 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 1984's new kind of honky tonk, 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.Citation needed
InfluenceHaggard's guitar work 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 newer stars such as George Strait, Toby Keith and Alan Jackson. Keith has singled Haggard as a major influence on his career. 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 the lines "How 'bout some music/She said have you got any Merle/That's when I knew she was my kind of girl." In 2000, Alan Jackson and George 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". 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 didn't co-write with John Prine). George Jones recorded two albums with him. Elvis Costello references Haggard on the song "The Big Light" from the critically-acclaimed album "King of America", where he sings "I didn't even touch the light-switch 'cos I knew that I would see/The Haggard face that would be staring back at me". For emphasis, the sleeve notes capitalize the H in Haggard. Lynyrd Skynyrd's song Railroad Song references Haggard, "Well I'm a ride this train Lord until I find out/What Jimmy Rodgers and the Hag was all about", Nuthin' Fancy Nuthin' Fancy.
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. The song was also written by Church.
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".Citation needed
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", executive produced by Quentin Tarantino.Citation needed
In October 2005, Haggard released his album, "Chicago Wind (Merle Haggard album)", 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 experiencing some sickness, 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.Citation needed
EquipmentHaggard 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.Citation needed
Death of Bonnie OwensOn April 24, 2006, Haggard's former wife, Bonnie (October 1, 1929 - April 24, 2006), died in Bakersfield from Alzheimer's disease, aged 76.
Cancer diagnosisOn November 9, 2008, it was announced that Haggard had been diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer and had undergone surgery on November 3 to have part of his lung 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 is planning to continue to tour and record.
LegacyOn 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 as Merle Haggard Drive, which 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.
38 number one hits
- I'm A Lonesome Fugitive (1966)
- Branded Man (1967)
- Sing Me Back Home (1968)
- The Legend Of Bonnie And Clyde (1968)
- Mama Tried (1968)
- Hungry Eyes (1969)
- Workin' Man Blues (1969)
- Okie From Muskogee (1969)
- The Fightin' Side of Me (1970)
- Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man) (1971)
- Carolyn (1971)
- Grandma Harp (1972)
- It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad) (1972)
- I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me (1972)
- Everybody's Had the Blues (1973)
- If We Make It Through December (1973)
- Things Aren't Funny Anymore (1974)
- Old Man from the Mountain (1974)
- Kentucky Gambler (1974)
- Always Wanting You (1975)
- Movin' On (1975)
- It's All In The Movies (1975)
- The Roots Of My Raising (1975)
- Cherokee Maiden (1976)
- Bar Room Buddies (with Clint Eastwood) (1980)
- I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink (1980)
- My Favorite Memory (1981)
- Big City (1981)
- Yesterday's Wine (with George Jones) (1982)
- Going Where the Lonely Go (1982)
- You Take Me For Granted (1982)
- Pancho and Lefty (with] Willie Nelson) (1983)
- That's The Way Love Goes (1983)
- Someday When Things Are Good (1984)
- Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room (1984)
- A Place to Fall Apart (with Janie Frickie) (1984)
- Natural High (1985)
- Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star (1987)
AwardsAcademy of Country Music
Country Music Association
- 1965 Top New Male Vocalist
- 1965 Top Vocal Duo with Bonnie Owens
- 1966 Top Male Vocalist
- 1967 Top Vocal Duo with Bonnie Owens
- 1969 Album of the Year - "Okie from Muskogee"
- 1969 Single of the Year - "Okie from Muskogee"
- 1969 Top Vocal Duo - with Bonnie Owens
- 1970 Entertainer of the Year
- 1970 Top Male Vocalist
- 1972 Top Male Vocalist
- 1974 Top Male Vocalist
- 1981 Top Male Vocalist
- 1982 Song of the Year - "Are The Good Times Really Over?"
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
- 1970 Album of the Year - "Okie from Muskogee"
- 1970 Entertainer of the Year
- 1970 Male Vocalist of the Year
- 1970 Single of the Year - "Okie from Muskogee"
- 1983 Vocal Duo of the Year - with Willie Nelson
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame
- 1984 Best Country Vocal Performance, Male - "That's The Way Love Goes"
- 1998 Best Country Collaboration with Vocals with Clint Black, Joe Diffie, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Pam Tillis, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt & Dwight Yoakam for "Same Old Train"
- 1999 Grammy Hall of Fame Award - "Mama Tried"
- Di Salvatore, Bryan. (1998). "Merle Haggard". In The Encyclopedia of Country Music. Paul Kingsbury (ed.), New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 222�24
- Di Salvatore, Bryan. "Ornery", The New Yorker, February 12, 1990, pp. 39�77
- Fox, Aaron A. "White Trash Alchemies of the Abject Sublime: Country as 'Bad' Music", in Christopher J. Washburne and Maiken Derno (eds.), Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate, New York: Routledge, 2004 (ISBN 0-415-94366-3)
- Haggard, Merle, with Tom Carter. My House of Memories: For the Record. New York: HarperEntertainment, 1999
- Haggard, Merle, and Peggy Russell. Sing Me Back Home. New York: Times Books, 1981
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