Merle Haggard - Biography

Merle Haggard, the California singer-songwriter who went from solitary confinement in San Quentin's notorious “hole” to enshrinement in the Country Music Hall of Fame, is one of the most accomplished and complex stars in country music's history.  Haggard's mixture of artistic sensitivity, outspoken socio-political conscience, and with a background of violence and criminality, was an unprecedented combination  which produced some of the most moving and commercially successful (40 number one hits) country records of the late 20th century.


Born April 6, 1937 in a converted boxcar in Oildale, California (just across the Kern River from Bakersfield), Haggard grew up with a relatively stable family life, but after his father died suddenly in 1946, the boy became increasingly volatile and contrary. Prone to sudden disappearances, drinking binges and petty criminal behavior, Haggard could not stay out of trouble. He spent his 14th birthday in a California Youth Authority cell (not the first of his many incarcerations), but after he displayed skill as an escape artist, his teenage years became a cycle of capture, flight, release and re-arrest. His love of country music had already manifested itself, and the boy was a gifted singer, winning local talent contests and even being allowed, at age 16, to perform during a show by his avowed idol, Lefty Frizzell, at Bakersfield's Rainbow Gardens dance hall.


While he immersed himself in the music of Frizzell, Bob Wills, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, Haggard invariably decided to travel on the wrong side of the street. After getting drunk and trying to burglarize a roadhouse that was  still open for business  (he thought it was three in the morning), the twenty-year-old was classified as an incorrigible and sentenced to three years in San Quentin. Foolishly, his defiance continued, and after guards discovered a batch of home brew fermenting in his cell, he landed in solitary confinement. There, in the darkness, Haggard finally got hip to himself, and following his 1960 release and return to Bakersfield, directed all his misspent energies toward music. After playing bass on Cousin Herb Henson's popular KERO Trading Post show, and a stint with the great singer-songwriter Red Simpson, Haggard graduated to a spot in innovative Los Angeles country singer Wynn Stewart’s band. By 1963, Stewart presented him, “Sing a Sad Song,” and Haggard scored his first Top Twenty country hit, recorded in a Bakersfield garage and released by the tiny independent Tally label.


After a string of 45s on Tally (making the Top Thirty with "Just Between the Two of Us," a 1964 duet with future wife Bonnie Owens) Haggard signed with Capitol Records in 1965. There, he began a staggering run of chart-topping singles and albums, records distinguished further by an acutely individualized sound. While his phrasing style owed much to Frizzell, Haggard's lighter, more sharply angular delivery and an emphasis on acoustic rhythm guitars and unusual subject matter (focused on life as a fugitive and convict), was unique to the singer.  He also threw down superb drinking songs ("Swingin Doors," "I Threw Away a Rose") and offbeat studies of romance, some flat-out misogynistic ("I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can"), others unspeakably tender ("Mary's Mine"). Haggard's ace band, the Strangers, was anchored by lead guitarist Roy Nichols and steel man Norm Hamlet. While he often used studio players like James Burton and Al Bruno, it was Nichols and Haggard who together created the Strangers sound--a distinctive modern style exemplified by the intensely personal 1968 classic, "Mama Tried," his fourth number one hit that year. By 1968, Haggard had already won five Academy of Country Music Awards (of a career total of twenty ACM nods)  and two Cashbox awards, but he was just getting started.


With 1969's infamous redneck flag-waver, "Okie From Muskogee," Haggard attained an even greater degree of fame when the song made the pop chart's Top Fifty (it was also a number one country hit). It quickly generated a storm of publicity and bitter controversy. With opening line "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee . . .", its message galvanized, and divided, he nation. Hippies and liberals despised him for it, but it prompted segregationist Georgia politician and presidential hopeful, George Wallace, to seek Haggard's endorsement (he never got it). Ironically, the song was created between hits of weed on his tour bus (as Haggard explained to a reporter in 1974, "Son, Muskogee is the only place I don't smoke it"), and remains one of a group of very few songs which the famously spontaneous singer is guaranteed to perform at every single performance. Significantly, it was "Okie" that finally led to Nashville's clannish, California-averse Country Music Association to recognize Haggard for the first time, handing the outsider their Top Male Vocalist, Album of the Year and Best Touring Band awards in 1970.


Ever the iconoclast, Haggard planned a follow-up single aimed to cover an equally explosive subject, racial tolerance, with the song "Irma Brown," but Capitol refused to release it. Haggard gave in (the song was shelved for decades)  but this was the first sting in a long and increasingly rancorous series of similar clashes with record executives. His albums continued to exhibit far more nuance and reach than many of the days top stars, as with Hag, (1971 Capitol) where he buried the hatchet with hippies on “Farmer’s Daughter,” employed an almost mystical use of metaphor with “Somewhere Between,” and reached for idiosyncratic beauty on his remarkable, “Shelley’s Winter Love.” He had already paid resolute homage to his forebears with albums like the Jimmie Rodgers tribute, Same Train, Different Time (1969 Capitol) and A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, Or My Salute to Bob Wills (1970 Capitol), which featured Wills and several of the original Texas Playboys (incredibly, Haggard had taken up, and mastered, the fiddle within several months ahead of recording it). With those passionate acknowledgments, Haggard stood alone at the center of his own singular country music firmament, a towering, unpredictable figure whose every move was closely watched by his colleagues (and by California Governor Ronald Reagan, who formally pardoned Haggard in 1972; the document is displayed at the Country Music Hall of Fame museum).

By the mid-70s, Haggard was at the top of his game, and when he departed Capitol for MCA Records in 1976, he continued forging strikingly unusual artistic statements, many of which also topped the charts. He continually broadened his approach, adding several key players from the old Wills Playboys, groundbreaking veteran guitarist Eldon Shamblin and mandolinist Tiny Moore. He delved into the hot Western swing tradition with such momentous creative affect that Haggard became the only country singer ever featured on the cover of jazz bible, Downbeat magazine. With Serving 190 Proof (1979 MCA), the singer crafted a record of unflinching introspection and offbeat, humorous entertainment that was unparalleled in scope and impact; his reflection on approaching middle age, “Footlights,” stands as one of the finest masterpieces in all of country music, both for Haggard’s lyrics and delivery, and the spare, brilliant, jazz-inflected work of soloist Roy Nichols.

A switch to Epic in 1981 brought more consistently impressive albums, Haggard now serving as his own producer. With 1981's Big City, he had a huge country hit on his hands- with singles "My Favorite Memory," "Big City" both going to Number One. The music became increasingly personalized and jazz-tinged, and always of notable quality. His 1984 version of Lefty Frizzell’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” earned him a Grammy, but shortly before his Epic contract expired,  Haggard received what seemed likely to be his final top 5 country hit, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” from his outstanding Chill Factor album (1987 Epic). A move to Curb Records in 1990 was off to a good start with the engrossing Blue Jungle album (1990 Curb,) but ultimately proved disastrous (“Mike Curb tried to kill my music,” Haggard said, “I mean, put it in a coffin.”), leaving Haggard with a handful of so-so albums and a serious beef with the label president, whom Haggard has repeatedly challenged to a public boxing match. Freed from Curb by 1996, he withdrew to his home recording studio, laying down over two hundred tracks over the next few years, but releasing none of them.


Haggard surprised  many when he signed with Anti- Records, a subsidiary of punk label Epitaph, for If I Could Only Fly (2000 Anti-) and Roots, Vol. 1 (2001 Anti-), a Lefty Frizzell set that Haggard was inspired to record when he discovered that Frizzell’s original lead guitarist, Norm Stephens, lived just a few miles from Haggard’s Northern California home (Stephens subsequently did a fair bit of touring with Haggard). He has stayed active into the 21st century, with the self-released Like Never Before  (2003 Hag) finally made public the singer’s own libertarian, anti-Federal, outsider perspective with lyrics that mention “men in black kicking down the door” of guitar-playing rebel's homes. A surprising return to Capitol brought the Jimmy Bowen-produced, typically outspoken, Chicago Wind (2005 Capitol), but there was no follow-up release.  Never one to limit himself, Haggard achieved another first with The Bluegrass Sessions (2007 McCoury), following it with I Am What I Am (2010) and Working In Tennesee (2011). On April 6, 2016, Merle Haggard passed away. He was 79 years old.



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