The Roots of My Raising
Merle Haggard is one of the few country stars who actually hails from Bakersfield. His parents and older siblings left Oklahoma for California in 1935, and Merle was born April 6, 1937, in a Bakersfield hospital. His family lived in a converted railroad boxcar in Oildale, an unincorporated working-class town just across the Kern River from Bakersfield.
His father, James, a railroad carpenter and musician, died of a stroke when Merle was nine, forcing his mother, Flossie, to find work as a bookkeeper. In his autobiography Sing Me Back Home, Haggard recalled the years as "a time of blank, dark periods with constant pain inside my head."
Merle at age seven with his father, James, and dog Jack.
I Raised a Lot of Cain Back in My Younger Days
Merle Haggard taught himself to play music on a guitar given to him by his brother when he was twelve. By then he was showing some of the restlessness and rebellion that would lead him into crime. "I would have gotten a life sentence early in life, and died young, if music hadn't saved me," he said in later years.
After his parole from San Quentin State Prison in 1960 Haggard worked hard at making a name for himself in the Bakersfield music community. He developed a following at local nightspots High Pockets and the Lucky Spot.
The fledgling country singer frequently joined steel guitarist Fuzzy Owen on Bakersfield bandstands, and Haggard recorded his first singles between 1962 and 1965 for Owen's Tally Records. He made the charts with Wynn Stewart's "Sing a Sad Song," Tommy Collins's "Sam Hill," and Liz Anderson's "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" and "Just Between the Two of Us" (a duet with Bonnie Owens).
Listen to Merle Haggard sing "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers"
Between 1963 and 1989 Haggard placed 101 recordings in Billboard's country charts. Of these, seventy-one reached the Top Ten, with thirty-eight rising to #1.
Watch Merle Haggard sing "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" on the Buck Owens Ranch Show from 1966.
I Turned Twenty-One in Prison
Merle Haggard's prison songs-including "Branded Man," Mama Tried," and "Sing Me Back Home" are rooted in personal history.
Haggard served nearly three years, from 1958 to 1960, in San Quentin State Prison. He was sentenced for attempted burglary, but prior convictions for theft and other nonviolent crimes, and numerous escapes from jails and rehabilitation facilities, weighed against him when the California Corrections Department determined his assignment.
Haggard's experiences at San Quentin-spending a week in solitary confinement, seeing a friend executed-inspired him to turn his life around. Haggard determined to improve his lot by focusing on music after seeing Johnny Cash perform for San Quentin inmates.
Haggard was granted a full pardon in 1972 by Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California. The singer considered the pardon to be his "greatest award."
Listen to Merle Haggard sing"Mama Tried"
Merle Haggard released tribute albums to Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills at his commercial peak in the late 1960s and early '70s.
"During the 1940s and early 1950s in California, especially around Bakersfield, Bob Wills was a national hero," Haggard said. "He had come from Oklahoma to California during World War II, and it was like he brought some of home with him."
Haggard's other primary influence was 1950s honky-tonk legend Lefty Frizzell. Meeting his musical idol at Bakersfield's Rainbow Gardens in 1953 shaped the teenager's destiny. Frizzell loaned Haggard his guitar and invited him to sing Rodgers's "My Rough and Rowdy Ways." The occasion marked Haggard's first performance in front of a large audience and his first encounter with his future guitarist, Roy Nichols, who was part of Frizzell's touring show.
A lifetime student of the music, Haggard continued to introduce the songs of Frizzell, Rodgers, and Wills to younger generations, even as country music went through dramatic changes.
Listen to Merle Haggard sing "California Blues"
Merle Haggard's trademark sound was developed in the 1960s by his band, the Strangers. The group's name was derived from the singer's first Top Ten hit, "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," in 1965.
While the lineup changed some over the years, the group remained a cohesive unit thanks to a core of musicians that included founding lead guitarist Roy Nichols, steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, and drummer Biff Adam.
Harmony singer Bonnie Owens, who was married to Haggard from 1965 to 1978, remained in the band even after their divorce.
The Academy of Country Music voted the Strangers Best Touring Band eight times between 1969 and 1987, after Buck Owens's Buckaroos had dominated the category for years.
Haggard relied heavily on the Strangers when he recorded, though he often supplemented the lineup with studio professionals, including Telecaster guitar legend James Burton and innovative steel guitarist Ralph Mooney.
Merle Haggard and the Strangers, 1967. Front row, Roy Nichols, Bonnie Owens, Eddie Burns, Haggard. Back row, Norm Hamlet, Jerry Ward, George French
Merle and Bonnie
Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens were married from 1965 to 1978 and helped each other raise children from their previous marriages. They remained close friends and professional collaborators until Bonnie's death in 2006.
Inspiration to write the country standard "Today I Started Loving You Again" came to Merle while taking a moment's rest during a long tour with Bonnie in his early years of stardom.
"I took a deep breath and thought about my own feelings maybe for the first time in three months," Haggard recalled. "I looked at Bonnie and saw the exhaustion all over her face. She stared back, like people do when you look directly into their eyes. And I said, 'You know what? Today I started loving you again."
The ballad originally appeared under the title "I Started Loving You Again" as the flip-side to Haggard's 1968 chart-topping record "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde."
Listen to Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owen sing "Just Between the Two of Us"
I Make My Living Writing Songs and Singing Them
In 1965 producer Ken Nelson signed Merle Haggard to Capitol Records. In his plainspoken songs Haggard confronted personal struggles and espoused working-class values.
In short order Haggard created classics such as "Swinging Doors," "The Bottle Let Me
Down," "Branded Man," "Sing Me Back Home," "Mama Tried," "Today I Started Loving You Again," "Hungry Eyes," "Silver Wings," and "Workin' Man Blues," among other enduring originals.
As the sixties drew to a close, Haggard elevated his profile and his concert fees with "Okie from Muskogee," his ode to heartland culture, recorded when social tensions created by the Vietnam War were reaching their peak.
Haggard's remarkable run at Capitol Records ended in 1976, the year Nelson retired. Haggard moved on to MCA Records, for whom he released hits such as "Ramblin' Fever" in the late 1970s. Working with Epic Records for most of the 1980s, he sustained his success with "Big City" and other creative milestones.
Listen to Merle Haggard sing "BIg City"
My Own Kind of Hat
"I've lived the kind of life most men only dream of," Merle Haggard sings in a reflective song he wrote titled "Footlights." Indeed, few can match his career for longevity (fifty years of recording, and counting) and success (thirty-eight #1 Billboard hits).
Haggard long ago achieved iconic status as a distinctive singer, a gifted songwriter, a versatile bandleader, and a fiercely independent artist. Performers in a wide variety of styles, across generations, have cited him as a major influence and recorded his music. In 1994, the year of his Country Music Hall of Fame induction, artists paid tribute to Haggard on two albums that demonstrated the stylistic and thematic breadth of his songs. The aging legend has received numerous awards for his work, including the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors in 2010.
Today, Haggard has a home near Redding, California, hundreds of miles north of Bakersfield. Nevertheless, over the years, he has maintained strong ties with his hometown and the people he met there early in his career. Many have played in his band and otherwise been associated with him professionally.
Haggard continues to sing of life's great challenges on albums that are consistently creative, and his concerts never fall into formula. "The stage is kind of a refuge for me, and it always has been," he once said. "Over the years, I've climbed inside my music when things went wrong. I still do that. My music is where I really live."
Listen to Merle Haggard "I've Seen It Go Away" from his 2010 album I Am What I Am