Haggard's '60s recordings epitomized the Bakersfield Sound, and his strong output in the 21st century earned critical acclaim even while ignoring the conventions of New Country.
Key Facts about Merle Haggard:
- Merle Haggard's prison songs come from experience. The singer was put behind bars for a botched robbery in 1957. After he became famous, he was pardoned by California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1972.
- One of the most prolific figures in country music, Haggard has appeared on over 150 albums and received songwriting credit on over 250 songs.
- Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, joining fellow Bakersfield patriarch Bob Wills.
Merle Haggard's Early Years:
Merle Haggard was born in Bakersfield, California, on April 6, 1937. The city's rural landscape and Merle's simple upbringing would feature heavily in his songs.
Raised by his devout mother Flossie, Merle was a rebellious youth who often landed in trouble with the authorities. His father, Jim, was an amateur musician who had died when Merle was just nine years old. It was a terrible blow, branding Merle for life and pushing him on his wayward path.
After being in and out of reform schools as a teenager, Haggard attempted to rob a restaurant in 1957. He landed in San Quentin for the lesser charge of burglary.
From Prison Cell to Recording Studio:
Inspired by watching Johnny Cash's performance at the prison, Merle decided to try to make it as a musician. Up to that time he'd only played for friends and at local clubs where he was often paid in beer.
After being paroled from prison in 1950, Haggard pursued his music with renewed vigor, landing a job in Las Vegas as a guitarist. Over a decade later, in 1962, Haggard inked his first record contract.
After a spate of successful singles, he moved from Tally Records to Capitol Records and in 1965 released his debut long-player, Strangers.
Country Music Stardom:
In 1966, the hit singles "The Bottle Let Me Down," "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," and "Swinging Doors" (all written by Haggard) propelled the singer to country music fame. The songs' jittery fretwork, courtesy of longtime guitarist Roy Nichols, marked the songs out as something different from the usual Nashville product.
While the Vietnam War raged, Haggard landed in controversy with the hawkish tune "Okie from Muskogee" (which he later disassociated himself from) followed up with the bold patriotic song "Fighting Side of Me."
Merle Haggard never really went away in the late '80s and '90s, but he came back with a fury with a series of gritty albums in the 2000s. After leaving Curb Records and signing with the punk-oriented Anti Records, Haggard released If I Could Only Fly, which critics called some of his best work in years.
The albums that followed -- Roots, Vol. 1 and The Bluegrass Sessions, among others -- won him some of his best notices in years, although they earned little airplay or recognition from the Nashville establishment.
Essential Merle Haggard Album
- Down Every Road (Capitol Records, 1996. Compilation) (compare prices)
One recording doesn't do justice to the breadth of Haggard's work, so your best shot is this impressive boxed set. It includes material from both MCA and Epic Records. Running from the '60s to the '90s, the collection includes such classics as "Mama Tried" and "Footlights" as well as lesser known gems.
Books about Merle Haggard:
- My House of Memories: An Autobiography by Tom Carter and Merle Haggard (compare prices)
Haggard released this new biography in 1999 (he had previous published Sing Me Back Home in 1981). It covers his early years in prison, his problems with cocaine addiction, and follows his career past the rough patches and into the '90s.
Movies about Merle Haggard:
- Merle Haggard: Learning to Live With Myself (watch the full film)
This great documentary was first broadcast on PBS' American Masters series, and features footage of Haggard on tour and at home. He talks candidly about his past, while musicians including Kris Kristofferson, Keith Richards, and John Fogerty talk about his influence.
Essential Merle Haggard Songs:
- "Hungry Eyes"
- "Mama Tried"
- "Sing Me Back Home"
- "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down"
- "Workin' Man Blues"