Haggard, Merle (M. Ronald)

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Haggard, Merle (M. Ronald)

Haggard, Merle (M. Ronald), hard-livin’ country singer; b. Bakersfield, Calif., April 6, 1937. The mythic life of Merle Haggard—born to grinding poverty, a stint in prison, followed by rehabilitation and success wrought from hard work and harder livin’—is as much responsible for his success as his songs. Like Woody Guthrie, Haggard is an Okie who took his real-life experiences and molded them into his music. Like Guthrie, too, he has been uncompromising in producing records that reflect that experience. Unlike Guthrie, though, Haggard has enjoyed great success on the country charts, nearly ruling the Top Ten from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s.

Haggard’s parents were displaced Okies from the small town of Checotah (halfway between McAlester and Muskogee); like many others, they were driven off their land by the ravaging dust storms of the mid-1930s, moving west to Calif, in search of a better way of life. They found living conditions tough there, and jobs few; the family was living in a converted boxcar when Haggard was born. They fared better after Merle’s father got a job with the Santa Fe Railroad, but this brief period of prosperity ended with his premature death when Merle was nine.

Haggard attributes his troubled teenage years to his father’s passing. He became difficult and unruly, constantly running away from home. He ended up serving time in reform school, and then, when he reached age 17, 90 days in prison for stealing. Merle hung with a tough crowd, and when he was released he was soon in trouble again. One night, Haggard and a drunken friend tried to break into a restaurant that they thought was closed; it turned out it was earlier than the boys thought, and the owner greeted them at the back door just after they had removed the hinges to break in! Haggard spent two and a half years in prison following his arrest. While in prison, he heard Johnny Cash perform, which renewed his interest in country music and his desire to write songs that would reflect his own experiences.

Upon his release in early 1960, he was determined to turn his life around. He began working for his brother who was an electrician, while also performing at night in local bars and clubs. In 1963, he was hired by Wynn Stewart to play in his backup band in Vegas; there, Fuzzy Owen heard him play and signed him to his Tally record label. Haggard had his first solo hit with “Sing Me a Sad Song,” followed by a minor hit with a duet with Bonnie Owens on “Just Between the Two of Us” (Owens was married to Buck Owens at the time, although she would soon leave him to marry Haggard and join his road show). His first Top Ten hit came in 1964 with “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” written by Bill Anderson, which also gave Merle the name for his backup band.

Haggard was signed to Capitol Records by producer Ken Nelson who was in charge of the label’s growing country and folk rosters. His first hit for the label, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” written by Liz and Casey Anderson, defined the classic Haggard stance: that of a man who had been in trouble with the law, but now rued his rough-and-rowdy earlier days (and was still subject to temptation). More prison ballads followed, including Merle’s own compositions “Branded Man” and his first #1 hit, “Sing Me Back Home,” a true story of a man about to be executed who asked to hear, for one last time, a country song to remind him of his long-lost youth. Although this song literally drips with sentiment, Haggard’s dry-as- dust delivery and unquestioned tough-guy credentials made it (and many more like it) instantly credible to his audience. His 1968 hit, “Mama Tried,” told of the difficulty his mother had in raising him, expressing regret for his difficult teenage years.

Unlike many other country artists of the day who were often backed with tons of strings and smothering vocal choruses, Haggard formed a lean, tough backup band he named the Strangers, after his 1964 hit. The original band included Roy Nichols (lead gtr.), Norm Hamlet (steel gtr.), Bobby Wayne (gtr.), Dennis Hormak (bs.), and Biff Adam (drm.). The band’s pared-down sound became a hallmark of Haggard’s recordings, and he also wrote songs with its members, including Nichols and drummer Roy Burris (who replaced Adam in 1968).

Haggard gained his greatest notoriety for his 1969 recording of “Okie from Muskogee” a song that enraged hippies and the antiwar movement, while it cemented Haggard’s position in mainstream, conservative country circles. Haggard was inspired when drummer Burris spotted a road sign for Muskogee during a tour through Okla.; the drummer commented, “I bet the citizens of Muskogee don’t smoke marijuana.” The song inspired many loony parodies, including Pat Sky’s immortal remake (with the ending of the first verse changed to: “Love me, or I’ll punch you in the mouth”) and the Youngblood’s “Hippie from Olema.” Haggard feels his message was misinterpreted, although he followed the song with the equally jingoistic “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” full of old-time American bravado, and began hanging out with President Nixon.

One of Haggard’s heroes from his youth was Bob Wills, who regularly performed in Southern Calif, at the time. So great was his admiration for Wills that Haggard began to rigorously practice the fiddle, seeking to emulate the swinging style of Wills’s best lead fiddlers. He paid homage to the master fiddler in 1970 with an album of Wills standards, recorded with many of Wills’s then-retired sidemen, including mandolinist Tiny Moore, who soon joined Haggard’s traveling show. It was quite a gutsy move to record this decidedly “noncommercial” album, showing Haggard’s considerable clout at the height of his career. (Six years later, he had a hit with Wills’s “Cherokee Maiden,” arranged by Moore.)

By the mid-1970s, Haggard’s life and career were in disarray; his marriage to Bonnie Owens was on the rocks, and he broke with his long-time record label, Capitol, in 1977. He took a brief break from the music business, hinting that he would no longer perform, although he quickly reemerged as a performer and recording artist (with ex-wife Bonnie still singing in his show!) He recorded a duet, “The Bull and the Bear,” in 1978 with Leona Williams (who also cowrote the song); the two were married soon after. (The marriage lasted only until 1983).

Haggard’s recording career has been more sporadic in the 1980s. He had his greatest success in 1983 when he recorded a duo album with Willie Nelson, yielding the #1 hit and title track, “Pancho and Lefty” (written by Texan Townes van Zandt, and introduced to the pair by Haggard’s daughter). Since then, he has had occasional chart hits, while continuing to tour with one of the tightest country revues on the road, stubbornly performing his own brand of country balladry. He has also had a few roles on TV and in films, most notably appearing in Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy, yielding the 1980 hit “Bar Room Buddies” a duet with the equally grizzled actor that really made his day.

The winner of many awards, Haggard was elected to both the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.


Strangers (1965); Just Between the Two of Us (1966); I’m a Lonesome Fugitive (1967); Branded Man/I Threw Away the Rose (1967); Legend of Bonnie & Clyde (1968); Mama Tried (1968); Sing Me Back Home (1968); Pride in What I Am (1969); A Portrait of Merle Haggard (1969); Okie from Muskogee (1969); Same Train, Different Time (1969); Introducing My Friends, the Strangers (1970); The Fighting Side of Me (1970); A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player (1970); Honky Tonkin’ (1971); Hag (1971); Someday Well Look Back (1971); Land of Many Churches (1971); Let Me Tell You About a Song (1972); It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) (1972); A Christmas Present (1973); If We Make It Through December (1974); My Love Affair with Trains (1976); Songs I’ll Always Sing (1976); A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today (1977); Ramblin Fever (1977); Eleven Winners (1978); All Night Long (1978); Serving 190 Proof (1979); The Way I Am (1980); Big City (1981); A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine (1982); That’s the Way Love Goes (1983); Pancho & Lefty (1983); It’s All in the Game (1984); Kern River (1985); Merle Haggard—Songwriter (1986); Seashores of Old Mexico (1987); Chill Factor (1988); 5:01 Blues (1989); Blue Jungle (1990); The Family Bible (1992); The One & Only (1996); Live at Billy Bob’s Texas (1999).

—Richard Carlin