Born Merle Ronald Haggard on April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, CA; son of James (a railroad worker and carpenter) and Flossie Mae (Harp) Haggard; married Leona Hobbs, c. 1957; divorced; married Bonnie Owens (a singer), June 28, 1965; divorced; married Leona Williams (a singer), 1978; divorced; married Debbie; divorced; married Theresa Ann Lane; children: (first marriage) Dana, Marty, Kelli, Noel, (fifth marriage) Ben, Jenessa. Education: Earned high-school equivalency diploma. Addresses: Office--Hag Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 536, Palo Cedro, CA 96073. Website--Merle Haggard Official Website: http://www.merlehaggard.com.

Merle Haggard has been called the "poet laureate of the hard hats" because he is an intense, dedicated artist who happens to write and perform traditional country songs. Haggard holds the record, after Conway Twitty, for the most number-one country singles--hardly a year passed between 1963 and the mid-1980s when he did not have at least one original hit. According to Tim Schneckloth in Down Beat magazine, Haggard "is playing a very personal brand of music that is strongly rooted in the American past, music that synthesizes the work of long-departed artists from virtually every field of American popular music.... Like much art Haggard's work is complex, operating on a number of different levels. A listener can come into the show totally cold, never having heard of Haggard or his many sources, and still be impressed by ... Haggard's expressive singing and concisely powerful songwriting. But there are other things going on. Beyond the level of pure entertainment, strands of American music are being woven together in a totally organic manner.... [The] music seems completely natural to the players and the singers on the stage."

A Time magazine correspondent observes that, in the midst of country music's "booming supermarket of traditional goods and new brands, teaser displays and soaring profits," Haggard "stands virtually alone as a pure, proud and prominent link between country's past and present. He is not about to record with a couple of dozen violins to woo the easy-listening audience or hire a rock band to turn on the kids. Haggard has wide enough range and appeal already." That appeal has been recognized with a staggering array of awards from the Nashville music industry as well as the respect of peers like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. Critics such as Atlantic essayist Paul Hemphill call Haggard "one of the few genuine folk heroes in American popular music today," a writer-songster who is "gifted with an ability to capture the life of the common man with a certain dignity."

Poverty and Prison

Most country musicians sing about hard lives of poverty, prison, and privation. Haggard is the rare artist who has actually lived that life. Before he was born his parents were forced to abandon their Oklahoma farm and join the Depression-era migration to California. Haggard was born in 1937 in a railroad boxcar his father had converted into a house near Bakersfield, California. The Haggard family had slightly better fortune than many "Okies" who found themselves on the West Coast--James Haggard got regular work with the railroad and did carpentry on the side. Young Merle was particularly close to his father and was left at loose ends when the elder Haggard died in 1946. Within five years, while he was still a young teen, Haggard was skipping school and indulging in petty crime. "The trouble with me," he told Newsweek, "was that I started taking the songs I was singing too seriously. Like Jimmie Rodgers, I wanted to ride the freight trains. As a result, I was a general screw-up from the time I was 14."

Haggard escaped from juvenile homes no less than seven times, traveled up and down the West Coast doing odd jobs here and there, and fathered four children in a short-lived marriage. When he wasn't in trouble he could sometimes be found picking guitar in small clubs and dancehalls; he had taught himself to play after his mother showed him several basic chords. In 1957 he and his friends tried to burglarize a Bakersfield bar; he was arrested and sent to San Quentin for a six-month to 15-year stay. At first Haggard continued his antisocial behavior in the rough prison. The turning point came when he spent his twenty-first birthday in solitary confinement, listening to the agonies of the inmates on the nearby death row. "I'm not so sure it works like that very often," he told Atlantic, "but I'm one guy the prison system straightened out. I know damned well I'm a better man because of it." Released from solitary, Haggard volunteered for the prison's most difficult jobs. He also played in a prison band and got to meet his idol, Johnny Cash. When he was paroled at 23, he returned to Bakersfield, determined to make good.

Overnight Success

By 1960 Bakersfield had earned the nickname "Nashville West," having become a minor but significant center for the production of country music. Haggard soon found regular work as a backup guitarist at the clubs in Bakersfield and Las Vegas. In 1962 he met an energetic Arkansan named Fuzzy Owen, who became his manager and mentor in the business. Owen coached Haggard on his singing and songwriting, setting high standards that the young performer struggled to meet. Owen had bought Tally Records, a tiny production company, and in 1963 he recorded Haggard's first singles. The second of these, "Sing Me a Sad Song," made the country charts, and their following release, "All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers," made the country top ten. Overnight, according to Hemphill, "the doors blew open" for Haggard. Capitol Records offered him a contract, and--in what would become typical Haggard fashion--the artist agreed to the deal only if Capitol would buy Tally Records and make Fuzzy Owen his manager. Capitol agreed. Hemphill notes that Haggard assembled a band, "started writing his own stuff, running into Hollywood to record, hitting the top of the charts with every release, turning them into albums, and became by 1968 one of the top stars in country music with a fanatical following in America's factories and bars and prisons.... He was, to that forgotten mass out there between New York and Los Angeles, relevant."

Huge Hit with "Okie"

That relevance became charged with political meaning in 1969 when Haggard released his two biggest sellers, "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me," songs that affirmed a middle-American pride in America at a moment of national turmoil. "Okie" in particular "was the making of Haggard," to quote the Time reporter. "The song put [him] into the millionaire class, which he did not mind. It also earned him a reputation as a spokesman for the right wing, which he did." For several years Haggard struggled with the superpatriotic image his best-known songs attached to him, only emerging from "Okie's" shadow when the Vietnam War ended and the nation became less polarized. Haggard told Down Beat that, of all the songs he has written, "Okie from Muskogee" was the one that had "about 18 different messages.... Anything that becomes as big as that song did has got to have something more than a beer belly mentality to it. I didn't even know what it had myself. I got to analyzing it later and realized that it could be taken any number of ways, one of which is from a pride standpoint. Of course, a lot of people think that you have to have a beer gut mentality to be proud of a particular thing. In other words, you should be ashamed to be proud."

The critics expected Haggard to follow "Okie" with a string of patriotic hits that would capitalize on the mood of his blue-collar audience. Haggard surprised them, though, by returning to his standard themes: the hard life of the working man, the prisoner, and the disappointed lover. Esquire contributor Bob Allen notes that Haggard's songs prove him to be "a writer and singer of remarkable range and sensitivity. There are, in fact, few popular musicians today who have, in the clear, simple meter of the workingman, embraced so many dimensions of the American experience. In Haggard's songs, one hears the country's history, mythopoeic personas (the freight-riding drifter, the honest workingman, the condemned fugitive), and musical heritage.... These songs stand as stunning synapses of memory and emotional revelation, and are as simple and concise in their imagery as they are universal in their sweep." More and more, Haggard began to pay homage to his stylistic forebears; since 1980, for instance, he has played a major role in the revival of western swing music and has, with his band the Strangers, created a new genre, country jazz.

Haggard struggled with artistic malaise and professional burnout in the late 1980s, which was especially evident in his lack of enthusiasm for touring. In Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music, he told Alanna Nash that he suffered from "physical and mental fatigue. And boredom, or complacency, or whatever--doin' the same thing." He added: "A lot of people don't realize that what goes along with this glamour and these high points that the people witness--the big nights at the [Country Music Association] and this and that--are just a small percentage of the life that's involved. The main part of this life is a twenty-year bus ride." Still, Haggard was able to rejuvenate himself by working with other artists, like Willie Nelson, and by experimenting onstage with his highly regarded band. Haggard's last number-one hit, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star" climbed to the top of the charts in 1987, bringing his career total to 39 number-one songs. His contract with Epic ran out soon after, and he signed with Curb Records in 1990.

Financial Trouble

His first album for Curb, Blue Jungle, was released in 1990. Haggard had a disagreement with Curb over the terms of his new recording contract, and as a result, a new album didn't appear for nearly four years after that. In the meantime, Haggard found himself struggling financially and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1993. "I finally grew up when I turned 50," Haggard told Salon.com. He realized, "A person cannot do all he wants to do." "Between the lifestyle, the IRS, and the lack of a hit record, it's taken me 10 years to just get my head back to even," he confessed to Newsweek. "But maybe it's brought the creative juices to the surface again." It is widely speculated that Haggard spent upwards of $100 million dollars in the decade prior to his bankruptcy. The next year, Haggard released his third album for Curb, simply titled 1994. The album spawned his last semi-hit, "In My Next Life," which broke the top 60 and fell soon after that. Still, despite the lack of a hit song, the album received good reviews.

Haggard's next album, 1996, was released in the year of its title, again on Curb. That year, Haggard was honored with an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He also began hosting a weekly country radio show called The Road I Traveled. The show featured artists that influenced him and artists that he in turn has influenced. Program director Ken Brooks said that Haggard was a natural choice as host for the show. "He has probably lived three lifetimes compared to most people," he told Billboard. The material from the show was drawn from Haggard's personal experiences, connections, and extensive travels.

New Start with Independent Label

Haggard surprised many in the music industry when he signed with Anti Records, an imprint of the predominantly punk label Epitaph, in 2000. He spoke with Thrasher magazine about his decision to move to the small independent label. "Epitaph came to me. They said they were interested in paying me a lot of money ... they didn't want me to re-record anything ... they said they didn't want to change 'one hair on my head,' was their phrase. When you deal with the people I've dealt with, and then run into someone who's honest, it's really unbelievable." His first album for the label, If I Could Only Fly, was released in 2000 to critical acclaim. It would end up on Rolling Stone and Salon's "Best of 2000" lists.

Haggard published his second autobiography, My House of Memories, in 2002. He told Salon, "Writing a memoir is like going to a psychiatrist. The emotions are still sensitive. You uncover these memories and the emotions are just lying there, naked." Alanna Nash perhaps best sums up the complicated character of Haggard when she calls him the "restless, conflicted, dislocated itinerant poet [who] has eschewed an array of wives and children for the lure and the loneliness of the road." Nash also quotes the award-winning singer himself, who admits wistfully: "My character will probably pay in the end for not experiencing those soft and beautiful parts of life I've heard other people sing about in their songs."

by Anne Janette Johnson

Merle Haggard's Career

Singer and songwriter, 1960-; recorded first single, "Singing My Heart Out," with Tally Records, 1963; had first charted single, "Sing Me a Sad Song," 1963; artist with Capitol Records, 1963-76, Tally Records, 1977, MCA Records, 1977-80, Epic Records, 1981-1990, Curb Records, 1990-1998, and Anti/Epitaph, 2000-; president of Shade Tree Music Publishing Company, 1970-, and Hag Productions, Inc., 1973-; has made numerous national tours and television appearances.

Merle Haggard's Awards

Twelve citations from the Academy of Country and Western Music, including Best Male Vocalist, 1966, 1971, and 1972; twenty-six Achievement Awards from Broadcast Music, Inc.; Songwriter of the Year Award from Nashville Songwriters Association, 1970; and a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, for "That's the Way Love Goes," 1984; induction, Country Music Hall of Fame, 1996.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 30, 2003: Haggard's album, Like Never Before, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/country.jsp, October 1, 2003.

Further Reading

Sources

BooksPeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 4 years ago

Merle Haggard is an American treasure. He's a great songwriter and performer, he's always backed by great musicians, and through the years he has always remained true to himself and the God he believes in. I love to listen to his music, both the old and the new. I can't think of another musician who sounded just as good at 70 as he did when he was 25 or 30. But Merle does. For those of you who don't have it, go buy his newest CD. It has some wonderful new songs, written and performed by Merle. Thank you, Merle. And thank you, God, for sending us this talented man and watching after him.

over 4 years ago

If you can believe it I'm a little older than Mr. Haggard. Additionally, I was raised about 30 miles north of Bakersfield. In Delano I was one class ahead of Benita Valente. Benita became a world renowned singer as did Merle. However, of all things, Benita became an opera type singer. (Classical—Google her). Thus, within a distance of 30 miles the two California "towns" produced two exceptional singers: It must be the water! I'll also wager neither one of them has ever heard of the other one. Gary