Merle Haggard Biography

About the Bakersfield Sound Pioneer

Merle Haggard
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Merle Haggard's legacy as a songwriter and performer puts him on equal footing with such country legends as Johnny Cash and Jimmie Rodgers,  two of his major influences. His 1960s recordings epitomized the Bakersfield sound, and his strong output in the 21st century has consistently earned critical acclaim, even while the conventions of "new country" reign over the country music landscape.

Early Life

Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, Calif., about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.

His parents relocated there from Oklahoma during the Great Depression to find work. They lived in a converted boxcar. His father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945, which left Haggard deeply affected, and his mother worked as a bookkeeper to support the family.

His brother gave him a guitar when he was 12 years old and he taught himself how to play, seeking inspiration from the likes of Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams. With his mother absent due to work, Haggard became more and more rebellious. He spent his childhood getting into trouble: shoplifting, riding freight trains, and hitchhiking across the state. He spent a lot of time behind bars.

After a 15 month stint in a high security prison for truancy, larceny, and escaping from a juvenile detention center, Haggard saw Lefty Frizzell in concert in Bakersfield, California. Before the show he went backstage with friends and sang a few songs for Frizzell, who was so impressed that he refused to go on stage until Haggard sang a song.

Haggard's performance was so well received by the audience that it convinced him to seriously pursue a musical career. During the day he worked in the oil fields; at night he played at local Bakersfield clubs. He landed a spot on Chuck Wagon, a local television program. In 1956 he married Leona Hobbs, the first of many wives.

Life Behind Bars

Plagued by financial problems, Haggard turned to robbery. After a failed robbery attempt in 1957 he was sentenced to a 15 year term in California's infamous San Quentin State Prison. But prison didn't immediately straighten him out.

Two years into his sentence he found out his wife was pregnant with another man's child. Haggard reached a breaking point. He and his cellmate started a gambling scheme and brewing beer in their cell. He reached an all-time low when he was caught drunk and placed in isolation, but while there, he got to know Caryl Chessman, an author who was on death row. Their series of conversations convinced Haggard to turn around, and that's exactly what he did.

Once out of isolation, he started working in the prison's textile plant, took high school courses, and joined the prison's country band. In 1960, his sentence was reduced and he left prison three months later.

Fresh out of prison, he moved back in with his wife and worked jobs while performing at night. He joined a band that played at Bakersfield's most popular club, and soon he was making enough money to quit his day job. Haggard got discovered, cut a demo and landed a spot performing on a local TV show.

The Bakersfield Sound

The Bakersfield sound was brewing and had picked up enough steam to gain a national presence, thanks to the help of Buck Owens. Mainstream country had a smooth, polished, string-heavy Nashville sound, while the Bakersfield sound evolved form honky tonk and Western swing. Electric instruments gave the music a hard, gritty, edgy sound.

Haggard had minor success with a few songs released in the early 1960s, including "Just Between the Two of Us," a duet with Bonnie Owens. In 1964 he released his first Top Ten, "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers." 1966's Branded Man propelled his career and he was voted Top Male Vocalist at the Academy of Country Music Awards.

His songwriting progressed as he extracted material from his colored past. He became more of a fixture as his songs began to climb the charts: "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Mama Tried" both hit Number 1, and "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" hit Number 3.

Stardom

Haggard has never been afraid of a little controversy, as evidenced by the Number 1 song "Okie from Muskogee." The song was an attack on hippies and sparked a ton of attention. Following its release Haggard became a full blown superstar. He followed up "Okie" with "The Fightin' Side of Me," a bold, patriotic tune. Over the next decade he didn't stop churning out hits.

In 1981, Haggard signed with Epic Records and started producing his own records. His first two singles on Epic, "My Favorite Memory" and "Big City," were both number ones. He scored hit songs throughout the rest of the '80s, including the George Jones duet "Yesterday's Wine" and the Willie Nelson duet "Pancho and Lefty."

By the mid-'80s the landscape of country music was changing. Fresh faces like George Strait and Randy Travis, both of whom idolized Haggard, started to dominate the charts. Their idol was now considered old-fashioned when compared to the new crop of slick, young artists, and he was having a tough time getting on the charts. The rest of the '80s and early '90s were relatively quiet times.

Haggard came back with a vengeance when he signed with Anti Records in 2000, issuing If I Could Fly, which critics called some of his best work in years. In 2003 he returned to former label EMI and released a collection of pop standards titled UnforgettableThe Bluegrass Sessions followed.

Later Life

In 2010 Haggard released I Am What I Am, which was lauded by critics. He paired up with Willie Nelson to record their first collaborative effort in 20 years, Djano & Jimmie. The album was issued in June 2015 and debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard country chart.

Haggard continues to perform live and has been touring steadily since 2009.  Over the course of his career he's produced almost 40 Number 1 hits and won 19 Academy of Country Music Awards, six Country Music Association Awards and three Grammy Awards. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

He was named BMI Icon at the BMI Pop Awards in 2006.

Haggard was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors Awards. He's also the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from California State University, Bakersfield.

Haggard passed away at the age of 79 on April 6, 2016. 

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