The word “legend” usually makes an appearance at some point when discussing Merle Haggard. It’s an acknowledgment of his artistry and his standing as “the poet of the common man.” It’s a tribute to his incredible commercial success and to the lasting mark he has made, not just on country music, but on American music as a whole. It’s apt in every way but one.
The term imposes an aura of loftiness that’s totally at odds with the grit and heart of Haggard’s songs. “I’d be more comfortable with something like “professor,” he once told a reporter, and the description suits him. Studying, analyzing and observing the details of life around him, Haggard relays what he sees, hears and feels through his songs. The lyrics are deceptively simple, the music exceptionally listenable. Others who have lived through those same situations recognize the truth in the stories he tells. But Haggard’s real gift is that anyone who hears his songs recognizes the truth in them. When a Merle Haggard song plays, it can make an innocent-as-apple-pie grandma understand the stark loneliness and self-loathing of a prisoner on death row; a rich kid who never wanted for any material possession get a feel for the pain of wondering where the next meal will come from; a tee-totaling pillar of the community sympathize with the poor heartbroken guy downing shots at the local bar.
As a result, Haggard found his songs at the top of the charts on a regular basis. Immediately embraced by country fans, he also earned the respect of his peers. In addition to the 40 #1 hits included here, Haggard charted scores of Top Ten songs. He won just about every music award imaginable, both as a performer and as a songwriter, and in 1994 was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His body of work easily places him beside Hank Williams as one of the most influential artists in country music.
That’s quite an accomplishment for the boy who was once officially branded “incorrigible.”
Merle Ronald Haggard was born in 1937, outside Bakersfield, California. His parents, Jim and Flossie, moved the family there after their farm in Oklahoma burned down, with Jim finding work as a carpenter for the Santa Fe Railroad. The family lived in an old boxcar that they converted into a home. Though struggling to make a meager living, they had a sturdy shelter and food was always on the table.
Things changed dramatically after Jim died of a stroke when Merle was nine years old. It was a devastating event for the young boy, who was very close to his father. His mother went to work as a bookkeeper to make ends meet, often leaving Merle in the care of a great aunt and uncle. With his world turned upside down, Haggard turned rebellious. He hopped a freight train when he was just ten years old, making it to Fresno before being picked up by the authorities. It was the first step toward a youth of truancy from school and petty crime. For the next few years, Haggard would find himself in reform schools, sometimes making an escape, only to get thrown back in again.
The angel on his shoulder during these troubled times was Haggard’s love and talent for music. Though he gave it up before Merle was born, his father used to play fiddle and guitar in Oklahoma for schoolhouse dances and social gatherings. Not having an automobile or formal instrument cases, the senior Haggard would ride his horse to these gatherings, carrying his fiddle on one side of the horse and the guitar on the other, in large pillowcases.
Still some of the musical gift had been passed on to Merle, and he easily took to playing guitar. Starting out as a fan of Bob Wills, Haggard eventually found his musical idol in Lefty Frizzell, and worked up a pretty impressive copy of the original’s singing style. “For three or four years I didn’t sing anything but Lefty Frizzell songs,” Merle told Music City News. “And then, because Lefty was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers, I learned to imitate him too.” Haggard got the chance to see Lefty perform in person when he was 14. “He was dressed in white – heroes usually are,” Merle said.
The hero wasn’t a savior though, at least not in an immediate sense. Haggard was already starting to make small amounts of money here and there by playing music, but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble. He left home at 15 with a friend, and the two were picked up as suspects in a robbery. Though innocent, he ended up in jail for two-and-a-half weeks. It was the first time he tasted prison life, but it wasn’t the last. In and out of jail over the years for small crimes, he found himself doing serious time in San Quentin at the age of 20.
“Going to prison has one of a few effects,” he told Salon in 2004. “It can make you worse, or it can make you understand and appreciate freedom. I learned to appreciate freedom when I didn’t have any.”
His musical ability offered hope for a future. A fellow inmate at San Quentin, nicknamed Rabbit, saw that clearly. When Rabbit came up with an escape plan, he told Haggard that he could come along, but probably shouldn’t, since he had a good shot of making a career from his singing.
As Rabbit had predicted, Haggard’s music was his way out of a dead-end life of small crimes and intermittent jail time. Released from San Quentin in 1960, he joined the then thriving Bakersfield country scene, which eschewed the smooth country-politan sound coming out of Nashville for a harder-hitting honky-tonk groove.
After making an impression working in local clubs, Haggard joined Las Vegas star Wynn Stewart’s band in 1962 as a bassist. When he got a chance to record his own single, Haggard chose the Stewart composition, “Sing A Sad Song.” It came out on the small Tally Records label in 1964, and made it into the Top Twenty. His follow up singles didn’t do quite as well, until “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” went into the Top Ten and brought him to the attention of Capitol Records. He proved himself a hit maker with three Top Ten singles in 1967, including his first #1, “The Fugitive.”