Facts about Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard Biography
Fiercely independent and loaded with down-home credibility, Merle Haggard was a country music star from the mid-1960s until his death in 2016.
Merle Haggard’s upbringing in Bakersfield, California as a post-Depression Oklahoma transplant is the stuff of legends: Raised in a boxcar (his dad worked for the railroad), he spent his youth getting into trouble and running away from home. His unruly behavior eventually ended with a stint in San Quentin prison for burglary (1958-60). Haggard worked on his music in jail, and after his release he landed jobs performing in night clubs and playing bass for Wynn Stewart. He then became part of Bakersfield’s growing music scene and began his recording career singing duets with Bonnie Owens (the ex-wife of country star Buck Owens).
In 1965 he released his first big label album, The Strangers, the title taken from his hit single, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers.” (The Strangers also became the name of his long-time backing band.) In the last half of the 1960s Haggard emerged as one of country music’s biggest stars, recording ballads and honky-tonk hits including “The Fugitive,” “Mama Tried” and “Workin’ Man Blues.” His 1969 single “Okie From Muskogee,” a good-natured slap at hippie-influenced pop culture, was a crossover hit and Haggard made headlines as a symbol for love-it-or-leave-it America. The attention even helped get him an invitation to play for Richard Nixon at the White House.
“Hag” was a talented musician (fiddle and guitar), a gifted vocalist and an influential songwriter, and his turbulent personal life added to his reputation as an ornery individualist. He paid tribute to traditional country music (as in 1970’s A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World: Bob Wills) but also appealed to crowds beyond country music’s typical audience; in 2005 he toured with Bob Dylan.
His recordings include: “The Fightin’ Side of Me”; Poncho and Lefty, an album of duets with Willie Nelson; “The Way I Am” (from the Clint Eastwood movie Bronco Billy); “I Think I’ll Stay Here and Drink”; and “That’s the News,” a commentary on the media’s coverage of war in Iraq.
In 1972 the governor of California, Ronald Reagan, granted Merle Haggard a full pardon for his earlier crimes.