Merle Haggard’s parents, Flossie Mae (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 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 north of Bakersfield, 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. 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.
Merle 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 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, Merle Haggard was arrested in 1957 shortly after he tried to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse. He was sent to Bakersfield Jail, and was 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. He was released from San Quentin on parole in 1960. According to Rolling Stone, “In 1972, then-California governor Ronald Reagan expunged Haggard’s criminal record, granting him a full pardon.”
In 1966, Merle Haggard recorded “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”, also written by Liz Anderson with her husband Casey Anderson, which became his first number 1 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 convict…some prisoner that was 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 Merle 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-ten 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 like “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 1 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.
Merle 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.”
In 1969, Merle Haggard released “Okie From Muskogee”, with lyrics reflecting the singer’s pride in being from Middle America where people are patriotic and 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 anymore than I was.”
The studio version, which was mellower than the usually raucous live concert versions, topped the country charts in the fall of 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 smash “If We Make It Through December” which peaked at number 28) and signature song. In 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 didn’t 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, Merle Haggard had wanted to follow “Okie from Muskogee” with “Irma Jackson,” a song that dealt head-on 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”, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”, and others. 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.
Merle 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. 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 twenty-four number 1 country singles since 1966. On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, shortly after “Carolyn” became another number one country hit, then-California governor Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes. 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. 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 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 chart domination continued with songs like “Someday We’ll Look Back”, “Grandma Harp”, “Always Wanting You”, and “The Roots of My Raising”. Between 1973 and 1976, Haggard scored nine consecutive number 1 country hits. In 1977, he switched to MCA Records and began exploring the themes of depression, alcoholism, and middle age on albums like 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 1 hit in 1980 with “Bar Room Buddies,” a duet with movie star Clint Eastwood that appeared on the Bronco Billy soundtrack.
In 1981, Merle 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. Haggard also jumped 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 twelve Top 10 country hits, with nine of them reaching number 1, 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. He won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his 1984 remake of “That’s The Way Love Goes.” Haggard and third wife Leona Williams divorced in 1983 after five stormy years of marriage and the split, which took Haggard by surprise, served as a license to party for Haggard, who spent much of the next decade becoming mired in alcohol and drug problems. Haggard has often stated that he was in the stages of his own mid-life crisis, or “male menopause,” around this time. In the documentary Learning to Live With Myself, the singer is quoted in an interview from around the time: “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.” By the mid-eighties he was addicted to cocaine but managed to kick the habit. However, he was hampered by financial woes well into the 1990s as his presence on the charts continued to diminish as 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, Merle 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, Merle 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”. Merle 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 (1996) and in the Larry Bishop film Hell Ride (2008). 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, Merle 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.
In April 2010, Merle Haggard released a new album, I Am What I Am, to strong reviews, and he performed the title song on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in February 2011. Merle Haggard 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 said he finally realized his condition and quit for good. He quit smoking cigarettes in 1991, and stopped smoking marijuana in 1995. However, a Rolling Stone magazine interview in 2009 indicated that he had resumed regular marijuana smoking. Haggard underwent angioplasty in 1995 to unblock clogged arteries. On November 9, 2008, it was announced that he had been diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer in May and undergone 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, he played two shows on January 2 and 3, 2009, in Bakersfield at Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, and continued to tour and record until his death.
On December 5, 2015, Merle Haggard was treated at an undisclosed hospital in California for pneumonia. He made a recovery but postponed several concerts. In March 2016, Merle Haggard was once again hospitalized. His concerts for April were canceled due to his ongoing double pneumonia. On the morning of April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday, he died of complications from pneumonia at his home in Palo Cedro, California, just outside Redding, Shasta County. His son Ben said in a Facebook post that Haggard had predicted the day of his death a week prior.
- April, 06, 1937
- Oildale, California
- April, 06, 2016
- Palo Cedro, California
Cause of Death
- Haggard's Family Ranch
- Palo Cedro, California