Haggard, Merle Ronald

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HAGGARD, Merle Ronald

(b. 6 April 1937 in Bakersfield, California), singer, songwriter, guitarist, and fiddle player who overcame adversity to achieve country music stardom.

Haggard was the youngest of three children of James Frances Haggard, a railroad worker, and Flossie Mae (Harp) Haggard, a homemaker who later took up bookkeeping. He was raised in a converted boxcar in Oildale, near Bakersfield. Haggard took violin lessons as a child, later adding singing and guitar playing to his talents. His father died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1946, when Haggard was nine. When he was a teenager, his dislike of school led to frequent stays in reformatories; he also ran away from home on several occasions, living as a hobo and doing manual labor. As early as 1951, when he was thirteen, he found work singing in bars, and he developed a minor career as a performer over the next several years. In 1956 he married Leona Hobbs, with whom he had four children. The couple divorced in 1965.

Haggard became involved in petty crime that gradually grew more serious, leading to several brief jail terms. In December 1957 he attempted to rob a bar, was quickly apprehended, and was sentenced to a prison term in San Quentin. There he reformed and decided to make a career in country music. He was paroled in November 1960 after serving two years and nine months of a five-year sentence. (In 1972 he was pardoned by California's governor, Ronald Reagan.) Returning to Bakersfield, Haggard worked as a ditchdigger for his brother's electrical firm, but he also began playing in bands. Over the next few years he attracted the attention of such established performers as Wynn Stewart, who hired him to play bass in his backup band. In 1963 he was signed to the tiny Tally Records label and earned his first country chart entry, Stewart's "Sing Me a Sad Song," which peaked in the Billboard country singles Top Twenty chart in early 1964. That song was followed by "Sam Hill" and "Just Between the Two of Us," the latter a duet with Bonnie Owens, who became Haggard's second wife, in 1965. (They divorced in 1976.) Haggard married the singer Leona Williams in 1978, but that marriage also ended in divorce, as did a fourth marriage. He was married for the fifth time to Theresa Lane in 1993; they have had two children.

Following the 1965 Top Ten hit "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," Haggard switched to the much larger Capitol Records label and formed a permanent backup band, the Strangers. The twelve singles he released on Capitol between 1966 and 1969 all reached the country Top Ten; in fact, Haggard saw thirty-seven consecutive Top Ten country hits, most of which he wrote himself, between 1966 and 1977. The string began with the self-penned "Swinging Doors," which peaked in July 1966. It was followed by "The Bottle Let Me Down," and in March 1967 Haggard topped the country charts for the first time with "The Fugitive," written by Casey and Liz Anderson. Haggard's albums Swinging Doors and Bottle Let Me Down topped the record charts in December 1966. His own "I Threw Away the Rose" just missed topping the charts in June 1967, and his composition "Branded Man" began a string of four consecutive number-one hits and eight of his next nine singles. The Branded Man LP, meanwhile, was a chart topper in December 1967.

Increasingly, Haggard began to acknowledge his background in his songs. "Sing Me Back Home," which topped the charts in January 1968, concerned a death-row prisoner and was sung in the voice of a fellow inmate. "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde," which became number one in April, was about the famous criminal couple. (The Sing Me Back Home LP went to number one in March 1969.) Near autobiographical details were heard on Haggard's next single, "Mama Tried," written for the film Killers Three (1968), in which the singer appeared. The song's narrator tells of youthful malfeasance culminating in a life sentence in prison by the time he is twenty-one, but concludes that he alone is to blame, because "Mama tried."

Having thus unburdened himself, Haggard turned toward a style of belligerent patriotism in some of his songs of the late 1960s and early 1970s, starting with his early 1969 Top Five country hit "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am." He also delved into country music history, reaching number one on the record charts in July 1969 with the Jimmie Rodgers tribute album Same Train, a Different Time. He identified himself increasingly with blue-collar workers, notably in the 1969 number-one hits "Hungry Eyes" and "Workin' Man Blues." These themes also appear in his controversial song "Okie from Muskogee," co-written with Eddie Burris and topping the country charts in November 1969. The song would become his first single to cross over to the pop charts. It contrasts the straight-living residents of Muskogee, Oklahoma, with the dope-smoking hippies presented in the media of the late 1960s. "Okie from Muskogee" became a conservative anthem, and Haggard quickly followed it up with the even more explicit "The Fightin' Side of Me," a country number-one hit in March 1970, which criticized anti–Vietnam War protesters. Both songs lent their titles to chart-topping country LPs in 1970.

Such songs gave Haggard an image as a right-wing crank to many people outside the country music world, even though the songs constituted only a small part of his repertoire. He continued to be a major force in country music for the next two decades. According to the Billboard chart researcher Joel Whitburn's Top Country Singles, 1944 to 1997 (1998), Haggard ranked as the second most successful country singles artist of the 1970s, behind Conway Twitty, and third for the 1980s, behind Twitty and Willie Nelson. Haggard's record sales subsided in the 1990s, but he continued to tour and record regularly.

By confronting his personal history unflinchingly and responding to the political turmoil of the 1960s in song, Haggard effectively expanded the kinds of subject matter that could be addressed in country music. In this sense he was akin to Bob Dylan in the popular music realm, and he was a tremendous influence on other writers such as Kris Kristofferson, whose success would be practically unthinkable without him.

Haggard is the author of two autobiographies: Sing Me Back Home: My Life Story (1981), with Peggy Russell; and Merle Haggard's My House of Memories: For the Record (1999), with Tom Carter. Also useful are Paul Hempill's profile of Haggard in Bill C. Malone and Judith McCuloh, eds., Stars of Country Music (1975), and Alanna Nash, Behind Closed Doors: Talking with the Legends of Country Music (1988).

William Ruhlmann