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As a performer and a songwriter, Merle Haggard was the most important country artist to emerge in the 1960s, and he became one of the leading figures of the Bakersfield country scene in the '60s. While his music remained hardcore country, he pushed the boundaries of the music quite far. Like his idol, Bob Wills, his music was a melting pot that drew from all forms of traditional American music -- country, jazz, blues, and folk -- and in the process, developed a distinctive style of his own. As a performer, singer, and musician, he was one of the best, influencing countless other artists. Not coincidentally, he was the best singer/songwriter in country music since Hank Williams, writing a body of songs that became classics. Throughout his career, Haggard has been a champion of the working man, largely due to his rough and tumble history.
It's impossible to separate Haggard's music from his life. He was born to James and Flossie Haggard on April 6, 1937. His parents moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression, converting an old boxcar into a home. Before their marriage, James played fiddle in local honky tonk bars. Flossie was a member of the Church of Christ, which led to her forcing her husband to stop playing the honky tonks. James died from a brain tumor when Merle was nine years old. After his father's death, Merle became rebellious. In an attempt to straighten her son out, his mother put him in several juvenile detention centers, but it had little effect on Merle's behavior. As a teenager, he fell in love with country music, particularly Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams. When he was 12 years old, Haggard was given his first guitar by his older brother; Merle taught himself how to play by listening to records that were lying around the house.
Even though he had begun to pursue music, Haggard continued to rebel, running away with his friend Bob Teague to Texas when he was 14 years old. A few months later, the pair returned to California, where they were arrested as robbery suspects. After the real thieves were caught, Haggard was sent back to juvenile hall, but he and Teague took off to Modesto, CA. For a brief time, he did manual labor, was a short-order cook, drove a truck, and committed a series of small crimes. Soon after he moved to Modesto, Haggard made his performing debut with Teague at a bar named the Fun Center; the two were paid five dollars and given all the beer that they could drink.
By the end of 1951, Haggard had returned home and he was again arrested for truancy, as well as petty larceny. In the beginning of 1952, he was sent to Fred C. Nelles School for Boys in Whittier, CA; again, he ran away. This time, the courts decided he was incorrigible and sent him to the high-security Preston School of Industry; he was released after 15 months. Shortly after his release, he and a boy he met at PSI beat up a local boy during an attempted robbery, and Haggard was sent back to PSI.
After getting out of PSI for the second time, Haggard had the first major event in his musical career. He went with Teague to see Lefty Frizzell in concert in Bakersfield. Before the show, he went backstage with several friends and he sang a couple songs for Frizzell. Lefty was so impressed he refused to go on-stage until Haggard was allowed to sing a song. Merle went out and sang a few songs to an enthusiastic response from the audience.
The reception persuaded Haggard to actively pursue a musical career. While he was working during the day in oil fields and farms, he performed at local Bakersfield clubs. His performances led to a spot on a local television show, Chuck Wagon. In 1956, he married Leona Hobbs; the couple moved into his family's old converted boxcar. Throughout 1957, Haggard was plagued by financial problems, which made him turn to robbery. At the end of the year, he attempted to rob a restaurant along with two other burglars; the three were drunk at the time. Believing it was three o'clock in the morning, the trio tried to open up the back door of the restaurant. However, it was 10:30 and the establishment was still open. Although the trio fled the scene, Haggard was arrested that day. The following day, he escaped from prison in order to make peace with his wife and family; later that day, he was recaptured. Haggard was sentenced to a 15-year term and sent to San Quentin prison.
Prison didn't immediately lead Merle into rehabilitation. He was fired from a series of prison jobs and planned an escape from the jail, but was talked out of it by fellow inmates. Nearly two years into his sentence, Haggard discovered that his wife was pregnant with another man's child. The news sent Haggard over the edge. Soon, he and his cellmate began a gambling racket and brewing beer in their cell. Before long, Haggard was caught drunk and was placed in isolation for a week. During his time in isolation, he had several conversations with Caryl Chessman, an author and a member of death row. The conversations and the time in isolation convinced Haggard to turn his life around. After he left isolation, he began working in the prison's textile plant and took some high school equivalency courses; he was also allowed to play in the prison's country band. At his second parole hearing in 1960, Haggard was given a five-year sentence -- two years and nine months in jail, two years and three months on parole; he left prison 90 days later.
Merle moved back in with Leona and returned to manual labor. In the meantime, he sang at local clubs at night. After taking second place at a local talent contest, Haggard was asked to become a relief singer for a band led by Johnny Barnett at one of the most popular Bakersfield clubs, Lucky Spot. Soon, Merle was making enough money playing music he could quit his ditch-digging job. While singing with Barnett, he gained the attention of Fuzzy Owen, who owned the small record label Tally Records. Owen and his cousin Lewis Talley were instrumental in establishing Haggard's musical career. Owen made the first recording of Haggard, cutting a demo version of one of the singer's first songs, "Skid Row." Shortly after the recording, Haggard called Talley, who had praised him earlier in his career. Talley was able to land Haggard a job at Paul's Cocktail Lounge, which led to a slot on a local music television show.
During this time, Bakersfield country was beginning to become a national scene, largely due to the hit singles of Buck Owens. At a time when mainstream country was dominated by the lush, smooth countrypolitain sound of Nashville, Bakersfield country grew out of hardcore honky tonk, adding elements of Western swing. Bakersfield country also relied on electric instruments and amplification more than other subgenres of country, giving the music hard, driving, edgy flavor. During the late '50s, Tommy Collins and Wynn Stewart were two of the Bakersfield artists to have hits, and both were influential on Merle Haggard's career, musically as well as professionally. Haggard had admired Stewart's vocal style, and it helped shape his phrasing.
Early in 1962, Haggard traveled to Las Vegas to see Wynn Stewart's club show. Stewart was not at the club, having left to find a replacement bass player. During the show, one of Stewart's guitarists remembered Haggard and invited him to sing a couple of songs on-stage. Stewart walked in while Haggard was singing and was impressed, asking him to join his band as a bassist. For six months in 1962 and 1963, Merle performed with Stewart's band. During this time, Haggard heard Wynn's song "Sing a Sad Song" and asked the star if he could record it. Stewart gave him the song and Merle recorded it for Tally Records in 1963. Although Tally had minimal distribution, the record became a national hit, climbing to number 19 on the country charts early in 1964.
"Sam Hill," Haggard's second single, wasn't as successful, but a duet with Bonnie Owens, the former wife of Buck Owens, called "Just Between the Two of Us," broke into the Top 40. The next year, his version of Liz Anderson's "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" broke him into the Top Ten and established him as a budding star. Capitol Records bought out his contract with Tally and Merle released "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can," his first single for Capitol, in the fall of 1965. The single wasn't a success, scratching into the Top 50, but his next single, "Swinging Doors," was a smash hit, rocketing to number five in the spring of 1966. Late in 1965, Haggard began recruiting a backing band and named them the Strangers.
Haggard became a genuine country superstar in 1966, with three Top Ten hits, including "Swinging Doors." "The Bottle Let Me Down" climbed to number three and "The Fugitive" (later retitled "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive") became his first number one. He was voted the Top Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music Awards, while he and Bonnie were named the Top Vocal Group for the second year in a row.
Haggard's songwriting was beginning to blossom and audiences embraced his music, sending his "I Threw Away the Rose" to number three early in 1967, beginning a remarkable streak of 37 straight Top Ten hits, including 23 number one singles. "I Threw Away the Rose" was followed by four straight number one hits -- "Branded Man," "Sing Me Back Home," "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde," and "Mama Tried," which was heard in Killers Three, a movie that featured Haggard's debut as an actor. With the exception of "Bonnie and Clyde," the songs represented a change in Haggard's songwriting, as he began to directly address his troubled history. By 1970, he was talking about his time in San Quentin in the press, yet these songs represented the first time he had mentioned his past directly. Each single was a bigger hit than the previous song, which encouraged Haggard to continue writing in a more personal style.
Throughout 1968, Haggard's star continued to rise, with two number one hits ("Bonnie and Clyde," "Mama Tried") and the number three "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am," as well as four albums. Later that year, he recorded his first conceptual album, Same Train, Different Time. Released in early 1969, the record was not only an affectionate salute to one of Haggard's heroes, it reflected a fascination with American history and a desire to expand his music by adding stronger elements of Western swing, jazz, and blues.
Merle released three singles in 1969 -- "Hungry Eyes," "Workin' Man Blues," and "Okie from Muskogee" -- and all three reached number one. In particular, "Okie from Muskogee" sparked a tremendous amount of attention. An attack on the liberal hippies who represented American pop culture in the late '60s, the song struck a chord in audiences across the country, just missing the pop Top 40. Because of the song, Haggard was asked to endorse George Wallace, but he refused. "Okie from Muskogee" cemented the singer's stardom, and he won a large amount of awards in 1969 and 1970. In both years, he was named the Top Male Vocalist by the ACM and the Strangers were voted the best band, while the new Country Music Association voted him Entertainer of the Year and Top Male Vocalist in 1970.
Haggard released a sequel to "Okie" called "The Fightin' Side of Me" at the beginning of 1970, and it also shot to number one. That year, he released 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 in the '70s. Throughout 1971 and 1972, the hits kept coming, including "Soldier's Last Letter," "Someday We'll Look Back," "Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)," "Carolyn," "Grandma Harp," "It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad)," and "I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me." In 1972, the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, granted Haggard a full pardon. The following year, his hit streak continued, and he scored his biggest hit, "If We Make It Through December," which peaked at number 28 on the pop charts. As his reign on the top of the country charts continued in 1974, he played on Bob Wills' last album, For the Last Time. Wills died in 1975, leaving Merle his fiddle.
Haggard stayed with Capitol Records until 1977, and never once did his grip on the American audience slip during his tenure there. During his time on MCA afterward, he continued to have a number of hits, but his work was becoming slightly inconsistent. His first two singles for the record label, "If We're Not Back in Love by Monday" and "Ramblin' Fever," hit number two and he continued to have hits with the label throughout the end of the decade and the first part of the '80s. "I'm Always on a Mountain When I Fall" and "It's Been a Great Afternoon" were number two hits in 1978. In 1979, he only had two hits, while in 1980, two selections from the Clint Eastwood movie Bronco Billy reached the Top Three, "The Way I Am" and "Misery and Gin"; Haggard also appeared in the film. The two hits paved the way for his two biggest singles with MCA, the number one duet with Eastwood "Bar Room Buddies" and the number one "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink." Early in 1981, Haggard had a Top Ten hit with "Leonard," a tribute to his old friend Tommy Collins.
Later that year, Haggard published his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home; he also left MCA and signed with Epic Records. Once at Epic, he began producing his own records, which gave the music a leaner sound. His first two singles for the label, "My Favorite Memory" and "Big City," were number one hits. The following year, he released a duet album with George Jones called A Taste of Yesterday's Wine, which featured the number one single "Yesterday's Wine" and the Top Ten "C.C. Waterback." From 1983 until the beginning of 1985, Haggard continued to score number one hits, including the number one duet with Willie Nelson "Pancho and Lefty."
Merle's chart fortunes began to change in 1985 as a new breed of singers began to dominate the chart. Nearly every one of the artists, from George Strait to Randy Travis, was greatly influenced by Haggard, but their idol's new singles now had a tough time reaching the top of the charts. He had two Top Ten hits in 1986, and 1987's Chill Factor was a success, spawning the Top Ten title track and "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star," which would prove to be his last number one hit. In 1990, he signed with Curb Records, but he continued to have trouble reaching the charts; 1994 spawned his last modest hit, "In My Next Life," which reached the Top 60.
When his contract with Curb ran out, Haggard, hoping for better promotion and greater artistic freedom, signed with Anti, a subsidiary of the Epitaph punk-pop label. His first effort for Anti was released in late 2000; titled If I Could Only Fly, the gentle acoustic album was greeted with strong reviews. Haggard released one more album for Anti, 2001's Roots, Vol. 1, before departing. After 2003's Like Never Before, Haggard returned to his old home, EMI, the following year, releasing a collection of American pop standards called Unforgettable at the end of that year. Chicago Wind appeared in the summer of 2005. Haggard then turned to bluegrass, releasing the appropriately titled The Bluegrass Sessions, which featured appearances by Marty Stuart, Aubrey Haynie, and Alison Krauss (among others) in 2007. In 2008 he got the Bear Family treatment with the release of the multi-disc box sets Hag: The Studio Recordings 1969-1976 and Hag: Concepts, Live & the Strangers: The Capitol Recordings 1968-1976. I Am What I Am, an album of new songs, appeared from Vanguard Records in 2010. A second Vanguard album, Working in Tennessee, co-produced by Haggard with Lou Bradley at Haggard's own northern California studio, appeared a year later in 2011.
Even when success eluded him, Haggard's music remained some of the most consistently interesting and inventive in country music. Not only have his recordings remained fresh, but each subsequent generation of country singers shows a great debt to his work. That fact stands as a testament to his great talent even more than his induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Merle Ronald Haggard (born April 6, 1937) is an American country and Western song writer, singer, guitarist, fiddler, and instrumentalist. 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 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.
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 1994, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1997, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame."Full List of Inductees". Country Music Hall of Fame. April 6, 1937. Retrieved April 16, 2013. "Inductees". Omhof.com. Retrieved April 16, 2013.
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 Francis Haggard 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.
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 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 was later 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. 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 he had ever felt.
According to Rolling Stone, "In 1972, then–California governor Ronald Reagan expunged Haggard's criminal record, granting him a full pardon."http://myfamhist.homeip.net/casey/combined/fam03959.htm Cusic, Don 2002, p. XVII. Witzel, Michael Karl; Young-Witzel, Gyvel 2007, p. 130. Cusic, Don 2002, p. XVIII. Cusic, Don 2002, p. XX. "About Merle Haggard". Country Music Television. MTV Networks. Retrieved April 5, 2013. Cusic, Don 2002, p. XIX. Haggard's 40#1 (CD). Merle Haggard. Capitol Records. 2004. Aronowitz, Alfred G. 1968, p. 12. Gleason, Holly 1988, p. 34. Kingsbury, Paul 2004, p. 223. Cusic, Don 2002, p. XXI. Hochman, Steve 1999, p. 462. Erlewine, Stephen Thomas; Bogdanov, Vladimir; Woodstra, Chris 2003, p. 307. "Merle Haggard biography". Biography Channel. A&E Networks. Retrieved April 5, 2013. "Merle Haggard Biography". Oldies Biography. Oldies. Retrieved June 19, 2012. Merle Haggard
Upon 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. The following year he had his first national top ten 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. In 1966, Haggard recorded his first number-one song "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive", also written by Liz Anderson, which Haggard acknowledges in his autobiography remains his most popular number with audiences.
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, according to some Merle Haggard interviews decades later, actually written as a humorous character portrait. In one such interview, Haggard called the song a "documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time." However, 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.
"Okie From Muskogee", "The Fightin' Side of Me", and "I Wonder If They Think of Me" were hailed as anthems of the 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. In addition, The Flying Burrito Brothers recorded and performed "White Line Fever" in 1971, and toured with "Sing Me Back Home" and "Hungry Eyes". Singer-activist Joan Baez, whose political leanings could not 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, dedicated to Bob Wills, which helped spark a permanent revival and expanded audience for western swing.
On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, shortly after "Carolyn" became another number one country hit for Haggard, then-California 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, 1974.
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.
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!.
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, 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 his 1984 remake of "That's The Way Love Goes", 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, 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."Phipps 2001 Robert Duvall (actor), Gary Hertz (director) (April 16, 2002). Miracles & Mercies (Documentary). West Hollywood: Blue Underground. Retrieved January 28, 2008. Schoemer, Karen (July 6, 1990). "Pop/Jazz; A Maverick Upholding Traditional Values". The New York Times. Retrieved October 19, 2012.
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".
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".
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.
In April 2010, Haggard released a new album, I Am What I Am. Released to strong reviews, Haggard performed the title song on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in February 2011.See, Elena. "First Listen: Merle Haggard, 'I Am What I Am'". www.npr.org. Retrieved July 22, 2010.
Haggard 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.
Wives and children
Haggard has been married five times, first to Leona Hobbs from 1956 to 1964. They had four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli, Noel. They divorced, and in 1965 he married singer Bonnie Owens, former wife of Buck Owens, and a successful country singer at the time. Haggard has credited her with helping him make his big break as a country artist. Haggard shared the writing credit with Owens for his hit "Today I Started Loving You Again", and has acknowledged, including on stage, that the song was about a sudden burst of special feelings he experienced for her while they were touring together. She also helped care for Haggard's children from his first wife and was the maid of honor for Haggard's third marriage. Haggard and Owens divorced in 1978. In 1978 Haggard married Leona Williams; they divorced in 1983. In 1985 Haggard married Debbie Parret, but they divorced in 1991. He married his current wife, Theresa Ann Lane, on September 11, 1993. They have two children, Jenessa and Ben.
Haggard has 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 says 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 published October 1, 2009, titled "The Fighter: The Life & Times of Merle Haggard," indicates that he had resumed regular marijuana smoking.
Haggard underwent angioplasty in 1995 to unblock clogged arteries. On November 9, 2008, it was announced that Haggard had been diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer in May of that year and underwent 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, Haggard played two shows on January 2 and 3, 2009, in Bakersfield at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, and continues to tour and record.Heath, Chris (November 2005), "The Last Outlaw", Gentleman's Quarterly, retrieved July 21, 2010 "Merle Haggard Interview – One on One". Concertlivewire.com. Retrieved July 3, 2013. News of cancer diagnosis GACTV.com – cancer diagnosis
On December 19, 2006, the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved a citizen-led resolution to rename a portion of 7th Standard Road in Oildale as Merle Haggard Drive, which will stretch from North Chester Avenue west to U.S. Route 99. The first street travelers will turn onto when they leave the new airport terminal will be Merle Haggard Drive.
In 2006, Haggard was honored as a BMI Icon at the 54th annual BMI Pop Awards. During his songwriting career, Haggard has earned 48 BMI Country Awards, nine BMI Pop Awards, a BMI R&B Award, and 16 BMI "Million-Air" awards, all from a catalog of songs that adds up to over 25 million performances.
Merle Haggard accepted the prestigious award for lifetime achievement and "outstanding contribution to American culture" from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on December 4, 2010. At a December 5, 2010 gala in Washington, D.C. he was honored with musical performances by Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Kid Rock, Miranda Lambert and Brad Paisley. This tribute was featured on the December 28, 2010 CBS telecast of the Kennedy Center Honors. On June 14, 2013, the California State University, Bakersfield, honored Merle Haggard for his contributions to the arts with the honorary degree, Doctor of Fine Arts. Haggard stepped to the podium and said, "Thank you. It's nice to be noticed." On January 26, 2014, Haggard performed his 1969 song "Okie from Muskogee" at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards along with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Blake Shelton
Gary Keck, a chemistry professor at the University of Utah and an ardent fan of Haggard, introduced a series of chemical analogues of a biologically active natural product called bryostatin 1 to honor his idol's legacy.
Haggard's guitar playing 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 George Strait, Toby Keith and Alan Jackson. Keith has singled Haggard as a major influence on his career. The Youngbloods responded to "Okie from Muskogee" with "Hippie from Olema", in which, in one repetition of the chorus, they change the line "We still take in strangers if they're ragged" to "We still take in strangers if they're haggard". Nick Gravenites, of Big Brother and the Holding Company, paid Haggard a tongue-in-cheek tribute with the song, "I'll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle," later covered by other artists including Pure Prairie League. 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 "How 'bout some music/She said have you got any Merle/That's when I knew she was my kind of girl." In 2000, Jackson and 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". Brooks & Dunn also reference Haggard in 1993's "Rock My World (little country girl)" off their Hard Workin' Man Album as they sing "Acts like Madonna but she listens to Merle/Rock my world little country girl." Red Simpson also mentions Merle and Buck Owens in his 1971 song "Hello, I'm a Truck". The last line in the song goes, "Well, I know what he's gonna do now/Take out that tape cartridge of Buck Owens and play it again/I dunno why he don't get a Merle Haggard Tape."
In 2005, Shooter Jennings mentioned him in the title track of his album Put the "O" Back in Country and later mentioned him in 2007 in his song "Concrete Cowboys." 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 did not co-write with John Prine). George Jones recorded two albums with him (Merle) and mentions "The Okie from Muskogee" in his song "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes". Lynyrd Skynyrd's song, "Railroad Song", references Haggard, "Well I'm a ride this train Lord until I find out/What Jimmie Rodgers and the Hag was all about". They also performed both a cover of "Honky Tonk Night Time Man" as well as their own take on the song with "Jacksonville Kid" (found on the 2001 CD reissue of the album) on the album, Street Survivors.
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.
On June 14, 2013, Merle Haggard was presented an honorary doctorate by California State University, Bakersfield. The doctor of fine arts honor, the first in CSUB's history, was conferred during School of Arts & Humanities commencement ceremonies.
Haggard performed his 1968 song Okie from Muskogee at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards on January 26, 2014 with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Blake Shelton.
Haggard has also greatly influenced the Carolina-born, Texas-raised crooner D.T. Buffkin with his inclusion of jazz and rock 'n' roll elements into his music."Top BMI Writers, Publishers Honored at 54th Annual Country Awards; Merle Haggard Saluted as BMI Icon". bmi.com. Retrieved September 30, 2010. "Merle Haggard to Receive Kennedy Center Honor". Retrieved October 28, 2010. "Merle Haggard Featured in The Kennedy Center Honors on Tuesday". Retrieved October 28, 2010. "The synthetic bryostatin analog Merle 23 d... [Biochem Pharmacol. 2011] – PubMed – NCBI". Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. May 14, 2014. Retrieved 2014-06-14. Duet with Gretchen Wilson
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" (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)
Academy of Country Music1965 Most Promising Male Vocalist1965 Best Vocal Group – with Bonnie Owens1965 Top Vocal Duo with Bonnie Owens1966 Top Male Vocalist1967 Top Duo with Bonnie Owens1969 Top Male Vocalist1969 Album of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"1969 Song of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"1969 Single of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"1970 Entertainer of the Year1970 Top Male Vocalist1972 Top Male Vocalist1974 Top Male Vocalist1981 Top Male Vocalist1982 Song of the Year – "Are the Good Times Really Over"1995 Pioneer Award2005 Triple Crown2008 Poet's Award2014 Crystal Milestone Award
Country Music Association1970 Album of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"1970 Entertainer of the Year1970 Male Vocalist of the Year1970 Single of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"1972 Album of the Year – "Let Me Tell You About a Song"1983 Vocal Duo of the Year – with Willie Nelson
Country Music Hall of Fame and MuseumInducted in 1994
Grammy Awards1984 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"
Nashville Songwriters Hall of FameInducted in 1977
Kennedy Center HonorsInducted in 2010