Haggard, Merle (1937—)

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Haggard, Merle (1937—)

Country singer, songwriter and guitarist Merle Haggard was among the founders of the popular and distinctive "Bakersfield sound." While Nashville was, and is, the undisputed capital of country music, Bakersfield, California, often called the "second Nashville," emerged as its rival, noted for an element of western swing that produced a more up-tempo style than the "Nashville sound." Haggard, with Buck Owens, Tommy Collins, Red Simpson, and Billy Mize, was the core of this western headquarters of country music, and Haggard and Owens rode the sound to stardom over the next two decades. After helping to establish this new "honky-tonk" music, known for its harder edge and barroom themes, Haggard branched out into other styles of music and, by the 1970s, had joined the ranks of country's crossover artists. His career represents a combination of change and tradition: despite the diversity of his music, he always tried to maintain his ties to traditional country music, which earned him a reputation as contemporary country's music-historian. Haggard's unique blending of tradition and change proved to be a recipe for overwhelming success.

While Haggard showed an interest in music from a very early age, his early life was anything but indicative of future success. He was born into poverty in Oakdale, California in 1937, his parents having migrated westward from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl to seek work as itinerant farmers. His father died when Merle was very young, and the boy lived a rough and reckless childhood. As a teenager he alternated between odd jobs and reform school, and as a young man spent time in jail for various petty crimes. An arrest for burglary finally landed him in San Quentin Penitentiary for three years, an experience that gave him the resolve to change his life. After being paroled in 1960 (Governor Ronald Reagan granted him a full pardon in 1973), he went to Bakersfield and worked a series of odd jobs, mostly manual labor, while moonlighting as a guitarist in the raucous nightclubs and bars in the "beer can hill" area. Over time, his troubled youth became one of his greatest assets, as he churned out hit after hit revolving around themes of barrooms, prisons, and life on the margins of society.

Haggard landed a job as guitarist for a band led by singer Wynn Stewart, and eventually signed his first recording contract with Tally Records. His first hit was "Sing a Sad Song" (1963), followed by a Top Ten single ("My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers." The success of this tune brought a deal with Capitol Records, and by the mid-1960s Haggard was becoming a country music sensation with his songs of drinking, cheating, and breaking the law. During these years he married Bonnie Owens, a musician also under contract with Tally, and assembled a band, the Strangers. Soon Merle Haggard and the Strangers were producing a string of hits, including "Swingin' Doors" and "The Bottle Let Me Down," both recorded in 1966, and, that same year, his first number one single, "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive." Several more of his songs reached the top of the charts in the late 1960s, among them "Branded Man" (1967) and "Mama Tried" (1968). These successes earned him his first Top Male Vocalist of the Year award from the Academy of Country Music. His outlaw image set a trend in the industry—several artists emerged during these years who sought popularity by cultivating a reputation of lawlessness.

Yet, just as he had risen to fame as an outlaw, Haggard soon became a patriotic hero to a large and different sector of the nation. He attracted national attention and caused controversy with the release of "Okie From Muskogee," in 1969, a song that centered on life in a small Oklahoma town and championed the attitudes of the "silent majority" during the social tumult wrought by the Vietnam War. The song, which declared "we don't burn our draft cards down on main street," and "we don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," became an anthem for those Americans who had tired of social unrest and viewed protest against the nation's policies in Southeast Asia, or American society generally, as a lack of patriotism. Haggard later claimed to be somewhat surprised by the attention the song received, asserting that it had been written as a satire. Nevertheless, in 1970 he recorded "The Fightin' Side of Me," also based on the theme of patriotism.

By the early 1970s, the country music industry was undergoing great change as audiences responded to new styles that combined country with elements of other musical genres. Nashville, alert to the trend, introduced a wave of "crossover" artists who could sell records on multiple charts, while more traditional musicians were given correspondingly less play time. Haggard responded well to these changes, revealing perhaps his greatest talent: his ability to maintain his reputation as a traditional country musician and survive the seemingly constant changes in audience taste. His enormously successful single "If We Make It Through December" (1973) established him as one of the industry's crossover artists by reaching the pop charts; yet he complemented this success with tribute albums to earlier country music icons. The first of these was Same Train, A Different Time (1969), dedicated to the music of the "singing brakeman," Jimmie Rodgers, followed by an album recognizing Bob Wills' contributions to country music, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (1970). It was not long after that Haggard branched out into areas far removed from the honky-tonk style of his early career. His concept albums were well-received: Land of Many Churches (1973), a double album focusing on gospel recordings, and I Love Dixie Blues (1974), recorded in New Orleans. These brought him recognition and respect both from fans and his peers in the industry for his versatility. By the late 1970s, he was a fixture of the country music scene, making numerous television appearances and even a cameo appearance in the Clint Eastwood movie Bronco Billy (1980).

These years brought increased recording success and national popularity. In 1977 Haggard signed with MCA Records, where he produced even more number one hits, including "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" and "Rainbow Stew," bringing his number of chart-making recordings to over fifty. He also made celebrated duet albums with George Jones and Willie Nelson, both of which generated hits: "Yesterday's Wine" with Jones and "Pancho and Lefty" with Nelson. The album Pancho and Lefty earned Haggard and Nelson the Country Music Association's Best Album of the Year Award.

In 1990 Merle Haggard signed with Curb Records, and was still continuing to compose, record and tour at the end of the decade. His album Merle Haggard 1996 represents a musical overview of his entire career, offering a wide variety of styles, and duets with country stars young and old. "The Hag," as his fans came to call him over the years, received almost every major award offered by the country music establishment; and his band, the Strangers, has shared in the fame, garnering numerous accolades from the country music industry, including several Touring Band of the Year awards.

—Jeffrey W. Coker

Further Reading:

Byworth, Terry. The History of Country & Western Music. New York, Bison Books, 1984.

Haggard, Merle, with Peggy Russell. Sing Me Back Home: My Story. New York, Times Books, 1981.

Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A. Revised edition. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1985.