(Read all about Merle Haggard after the videos)
Merle Ronald Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016) was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist, and fiddler. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard and his band the Strangers helped create the Bakersfield sound, which is characterized by the 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.
Haggard's childhood was troubled after the death of his father, and he was incarcerated several times in his youth. He managed to turn his life around and launch a successful country music career, gaining popularity with his songs about the working class that occasionally contained themes contrary to the prevailing anti-Vietnam War sentiment of much popular music of the time. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, he had 38 number-one hits on the US country charts, several of which also made the Billboard all-genre singles chart. Haggard continued to release successful albums into the 2000s.
He received many honors and awards for his music, including a Kennedy Center Honor (2010), a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), a BMI Icon Award (2006), and induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1977), Country Music Hall of Fame (1994) and Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame (1997). He died on April 6, 2016 — his 79th birthday — at his ranch in Northern California, having recently suffered from double pneumonia.
Haggard's last recording, a song called "Kern River Blues", described his departure from Bakersfield in the late 1970s and his displeasure with politicians. The song was recorded February 9, 2016, and features his son Ben on guitar. This record was released on May 12, 2016, marking the end of Haggard's music career.
Haggard's parents, Flossie Mae (née Harp) and James Francis Haggard, moved to California from their home in Checotah, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression, after their barn burned in 1934.
They settled with their two elder children, Lowell and Lillian, in an apartment in Bakersfield, while James started working for the Santa Fe Railroad. A woman who owned a boxcar which was placed in Oildale, a nearby town, asked Haggard's father about the possibility of converting it into a house. He remodeled 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. At 12, his brother, Lowell, gave him his used guitar. 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, but it worsened.
Haggard committed a number of minor offenses, 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, his friend and he 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 his friend and he 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 Modesto 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 farmhand 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 after an escape attempt, was transferred 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 be returned to San Quentin for execution. Chessman's predicament, along with the execution of "Rabbit", inspired Haggard to correct his life. 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 performance by Johnny Cash at the prison on New Year's Day 1959 as his main inspiration to join it. He was released from San Quentin on parole in 1960.
In 1972, after Haggard had become an established country music star, then-California governor Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full and unconditional pardon for his past crimes.
Upon his release, Haggard started digging ditches for his brother's electrical contracting company. 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 overproduced honky tonk of the Nashville sound. Haggard's first record for Tally was "Singing My Heart Out" and "Skid Row"; it was not a success, and only 200 copies were pressed. 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-10 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. Haggard recalls having been talked into visiting Anderson—a woman he did not know—at her house to hear her sing some songs she had written. "If there was anything I didn't wanna do, it was sit around some danged woman's house and listen to her cute little songs. But I went anyway. She was a pleasant enough lady, pretty, with a nice smile, but I was all set to be bored to death, even more so when she got out a whole bunch of songs and went over to an old pump organ ... There they were. My God, one hit right after another. There must have been four or five number one songs there..."
In 1966, Haggard recorded "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive", also written by Liz Anderson with her husband Casey Anderson, which became his first number-one single. When the Andersons presented the song to Haggard, they were unaware of his prison stretch. Bonnie Owens, Haggard's backup singer and then-wife, is quoted by music journalist Daniel Cooper in the liner notes to the 1994 retrospective Down Every Road: "I guess I didn't realize how much the experience at San Quentin did to him, 'cause he never talked about it all that much.... I could tell he was in a dark mood...and I said, 'Is everything okay?' And he said, 'I'm really scared.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Cause I'm afraid someday I'm gonna be out there...and there's gonna be...some prisoner...in there the same time I was in, stand up—and they're gonna be about the third row down—and say, 'What do you think you're doing, 45200?'" Cooper notes that the news had little effect on Haggard's career: "It's unclear when or where Merle first acknowledged to the public that his prison songs were rooted in personal history, for to his credit, he doesn't seem to have made some big splash announcement. In a May 1967 profile in Music City News, his prison record is never mentioned, but in July 1968, in the very same publication, it's spoken of as if it were common knowledge."
The 1966 album Branded Man kicked off an artistically and commercially successful run for Haggard. In 2013, Haggard biographer David Cantwell stated, "The immediate successors to I'm a Lonesome Fugitive — Branded Man in 1967 and, in '68, Sing Me Back Home and The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde — were among the finest albums of their respective years." Haggard's new recordings largely centered around Roy Nichols's Telecaster, Ralph Mooney's steel guitar, and the harmony vocals provided by Bonnie Owens.
At the time of Haggard's first top-10 hit "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" in 1965, Owens (who had formerly been married to Buck Owens) was known as a solo performer, a fixture on the Bakersfield club scene who had appeared on television. She won the new Academy of Country Music's first ever award for Female Vocalist after her 1965 debut album, Don't Take Advantage of Me, hit the top five on the country albums chart. However, Bonnie Owens had no further hit singles, and although she recorded six solo albums on Capitol between 1965 and 1970, she became mainly known for her background harmonies on Haggard hits such as "Sing Me Back Home" and "Branded Man".
Producer Ken Nelson took a hands-off approach to producing Haggard. In the episode of American Masters dedicated to him, Haggard remembers: "The producer I had at that time, Ken Nelson, was an exception to the rule. He called me 'Mr. Haggard' and I was a little twenty-four, twenty-five year old punk from Oildale...He gave me complete responsibility. I think if he'd jumped in and said, 'Oh, you can't do that,' it would've destroyed me." In the documentary series Lost Highway, Nelson recalls, "When I first started recording Merle, I became so enamored with his singing that I would forget what else was going on, and I suddenly realized, 'Wait a minute, there's musicians here you've got to worry about!' But his songs—he was a great writer."
Towards the end of the decade, Haggard composed several number-one hits, including "Mama Tried", "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde", "Hungry Eyes", and "Sing Me Back Home". Daniel Cooper calls "Sing Me Back Home", "a ballad that works on so many different levels of the soul it defies one's every attempt to analyze it." In a 1977 interview in Billboard with Bob Eubanks, Haggard reflected, "Even though the crime was brutal and the guy was an incorrigible criminal, it's a feeling you never forget when you see someone you know make that last walk. They bring him through the yard, and there's a guard in front and a guard behind—that's how you know a death prisoner. They brought Rabbit out...taking him to see the Father,...prior to his execution. That was a strong picture that was left in my mind." In 1968, Haggard's first tribute LP Same Train, Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, was also released to acclaim.
Haggard's songs attracted attention from outside the country field. The Everly Brothers covered both "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried" on their 1968 country-rock album Roots. The following year, Haggard's songs were performed and/or recorded by a variety of artists, including the Gram Parsons incarnation of the Byrds, who performed "Sing Me Back Home" on the Grand Ole Opry and recorded "Life in Prison" for their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo; singer-activist Joan Baez, who covered "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried"; crooner Dean Martin, who recorded "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" for his album of the same name; and the Grateful Dead, whose live cover of "Mama Tried" became a staple in their repertoire until the band's end in 1995.
In the original Rolling Stone review for Haggard's 1968 album Mama Tried, Andy Wickham wrote, "His songs romanticize the hardships and tragedies of America's transient proletarian and his success is resultant of his inherent ability to relate to his audience a commonplace experience with precisely the right emotional pitch...Merle Haggard looks the part and sounds the part because he is the part. He's great."
"Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me"
In 1969, Haggard released "Okie From Muskogee", with lyrics ostensibly reflecting the singer's pride in being from Middle America where people are considered patriotic, do not smoke marijuana, take LSD, burn draft cards, or challenge authority. In the ensuing years, Haggard gave varying statements regarding whether he intended the song as a humorous satire or a serious political statement in support of conservative values. In a 2001 interview, Haggard called the song a "documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time". However, he made several other statements suggesting that he meant the song seriously. On the Bob Edwards Show, he said, "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." In the country music documentary series Lost Highway, he elaborated: "My dad passed away when I was nine, and I don't know if you've ever thought about somebody you've lost and you say, 'I wonder what so-and-so would think about this?' I was drivin' on Interstate 40 and I saw a sign that said "19 Miles to Muskogee". Muskogee was always referred to in my childhood as 'back home'. So I saw that sign and my whole childhood flashed before my eyes and I thought, 'I wonder what dad would think about the youthful uprising that was occurring at the time, the Janis Joplins...I understood 'em, I got along with it, but what if he was to come alive at this moment? And I thought, what a way to describe the kind of people in America that are still sittin' in the center of the country sayin', 'What is goin' on on these campuses?'" In the American Masters documentary about him, he said, "That's how I got into it with the hippies...I thought they were unqualified to judge America, and I thought they were lookin' down their noses at something that I cherished very much, and it pissed me off. And I thought, 'You sons of bitches, you've never been restricted away from this great, wonderful country, and yet here you are in the streets bitchin' about things, protesting about a war that they didn't know any more about than I did. They weren't over there fightin' that war any more than I was."
Haggard began performing the song in concert in 1969 and was astounded at the reaction it received:
|“||The Haggard camp knew they were on to something. Everywhere they went, every show, 'Okie' did more than prompt enthusiastic applause. There was an unanticipated adulation racing through the crowds now, standing ovations that went on and on and sometimes left the audience and the band members alike teary-eyed. Merle had somehow stumbled upon a song that expressed previously inchoate fears, spoke out loud gripes and anxieties otherwise only whispered, and now people were using his song, were using 'him', to connect themselves to these larger concerns and to one another.||”|
The studio version, which was mellower than the usually raucous live-concert versions, topped the country charts in 1969, where it remained for a month. It also hit number 41 on the Billboard all-genre singles chart, becoming Haggard's biggest hit up to that time (surpassed only by his 1973 crossover Christmas hit, "If We Make It Through December", which peaked at number 28) and signature song.
On his next single, "The Fightin' Side of Me" (released in 1970 over Haggard's objections by his record company), Haggard's lyrics stated that he did not mind the counterculture "switchin' sides and standin' up for what they believe in", but resolutely declared, "If you don't love it, leave it!" In May 1970, Haggard explained to John Grissom of Rolling Stone, "I don't like their views on life, their filth, their visible self-disrespect, y'know. They don't give a shit what they look like or what they smell like...What do they have to offer humanity?" In a 2003 interview with No Depression magazine, Haggard said, "I had different views in the '70s. As a human being, I've learned [more]. I have more culture now. I was dumb as a rock when I wrote 'Okie From Muskogee'. That's being honest with you at the moment, and a lot of things that I said [then] I sing with a different intention now. My views on marijuana have totally changed. I think we were brainwashed and I think anybody that doesn't know that needs to get up and read and look around, get their own information. It's a cooperative government project to make us think marijuana should be outlawed."
Ironically, Haggard had wanted to follow "Okie from Muskogee" with "Irma Jackson", a song that dealt with an interracial romance between a white man and an African American woman. His producer, Ken Nelson, discouraged him from releasing it as a single. Jonathan Bernstein recounts, "Hoping to distance himself from the harshly right-wing image he had accrued in the wake of the hippie-bashing "Muskogee", Haggard wanted to take a different direction and release "Irma Jackson" as his next single... When the Bakersfield, California, native brought the song to his record label, executives were reportedly appalled. In the wake of "Okie", Capitol Records was not interested in complicating Haggard's conservative, blue-collar image."
After "The Fightin' Side of Me" was released, instead, Haggard later commented to the Wall Street Journal, "People are narrow-minded. Down South they might have called me a nigger lover." In a 2001 interview, Haggard stated that Nelson, who was also head of the country division at Capitol at the time, never interfered with his music, but "this one time he came out and said, 'Merle...I don't believe the world is ready for this yet'... And he might have been right. I might've canceled out where I was headed in my career."
"Okie From Muskogee", "The Fightin' Side of Me", and "I Wonder If They Think of Me" (Haggard's 1973 song about an American POW in Vietnam) were hailed as anthems of the Silent Majority and have been recognized as part of a recurring patriotic trend in American country music that also includes Charlie Daniels' "In America" and Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA". Although Gordon Friesen of Broadside magazine criticized Haggard for his "[John] Birch-type songs against war dissenters", Haggard was popular with college students in the early 1970s, due not only to ironic use of his songs by counterculture members, but also because his music was recognized as coming from an early country-folk tradition. Both "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" received extensive airplay on underground radio stations, and "Okie" was performed in concert by protest singers Arlo Guthrie and Phil Ochs.
Haggard's LP A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, dedicated to Bob Wills, helped spark a permanent revival and expanded audience for western swing. By this point, Haggard was one of the most famous country singers in the world, having enjoyed an immensely successful artistic and commercial run with Capitol, accumulating 24 number-one country singles since 1966.
In 1972, Let Me Tell You about A Song, the first TV special starring Haggard, was nationally syndicated by Capital Cities TV Productions. It was a semiautobiographical musical profile of Haggard, akin to the contemporary Behind The Music, produced and directed by Michael Davis. The 1973 recession anthem, "If We Make It Through December", furthered Haggard's status as a champion of the working class. "If We Make It Through December" turned out to be Haggard's last crossover pop hit.
Haggard appeared on the cover of TIME on May 6, 1974. He also wrote and performed the theme song to the television series Movin' On, which in 1975 gave him another number-one country hit. During the early to mid-1970s, Haggard's country chart domination continued with songs such as "Someday We'll Look Back", "Grandma Harp", "Always Wanting You", and "The Roots of My Raising". Between 1973 and 1976, he scored nine consecutive number-one country hits. In 1977, he switched to MCA Records and began exploring the themes of depression, alcoholism, and middle age on albums such as Serving 190 Proof and The Way I Am. Haggard sang a duet cover of Billy Burnette's "What's A Little Love Between Friends" with Lynda Carter in her 1980 television music special, Lynda Carter: Encore! He also scored a number-one hit in 1980 with "Bar Room Buddies", a duet with actor Clint Eastwood that appeared on the Bronco Billy soundtrack.
Haggard appeared in an episode of The Waltons entitled "The Comeback", season five, episode three, original air-date October 10, 1976. He played a band leader named Red, who had been depressed since the death of his son (Ron Howard).
In 1981, Haggard published an autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. The same year, he alternately spoke and sang the ballad "The Man in the Mask". Written by Dean Pitchford (whose other work includes "Fame", "Footloose", "Sing", "Solid Gold", and the musical Carrie), this was the combined narration and theme for the movie The Legend of the Lone Ranger, a box-office flop. Haggard also changed record labels again in 1981, moving to Epic and releasing one of his most critically acclaimed albums, Big City.
Between 1981 and 1985, Haggard scored 12 more top-10 country hits, with nine of them reaching number one, including "My Favorite Memory", "Going Where the Lonely Go", "Someday When Things Are Good", and "Natural High". In addition, Haggard recorded two chart-topping duets with George Jones ("Yesterdays' Wine" in 1982) and Willie Nelson ("Pancho and Lefty" in 1983). 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.
In 1983, Haggard and his third wife Leona Williams divorced after five stormy years of marriage. The split served as a license to party for Haggard, who spent much of the next decade becoming mired in alcohol and drug problems. Haggard has stated that he was in the stages of his own mid-life crisis, or "male menopause", around this time. He said in an interview from this period: "Things that you've enjoyed for years don't seem nearly as important, and you're at war with yourself as to what's happening. 'Why don't I like that anymore? Why do I like this now?' And finally, I think you actually go through a biological change, you just, you become another...Your body is getting ready to die and your mind doesn't agree." He was briefly a heavy user of cocaine, but managed to kick the habit. Despite these issues, he won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his 1984 remake of "That's The Way Love Goes."
Haggard was hampered by financial woes well into the 1990s, as his presence on the charts diminished in favor of newer country singers, such as George Strait and Randy Travis. 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. Haggard commented about the situation, "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".
When political opponents were attacking the Dixie Chicks for criticizing President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Haggard spoke up for the band on July 25, 2003, saying:
I don't even know the Dixie Chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.
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 film Crash (2004), and his 1981 hit "Big City" is heard in Joel and Ethan Coen's film Fargo.
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, 2008.