My dad raised us on Merle Haggard music. A son of the dusty California Central Valley, he grew up on the Bakersfield sound. I vividly remember the day Merle died (April 6, 2016). I was living in San Francisco but I texted buddies from my hometown and we poured one out together from our respective zip codes for the guy who understood working America maybe better than anyone. He was an old-school free thinker and a proud American who turned 21 in prison but left the outlaw life to become a musical icon. This one's for you, Dad.
Bet You Never Knew This About Merle Haggard.
His first home was a boxcar. As part of the great Oklahoma diaspora, Merle was a true "Okie." His parents moved to Bakersfield during the Great Depression where his father, a railroad worker, turned a boxcar into the family home.
He held the record for most legendary "this round is on me" of all time. Literally: Merle landed in the Guinness Book of World Records for buying 5,095 drinks for everybody in Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth and footing the $12,737.50 bill.
He taught himself guitar. After his father died when Merle was just 9, his brother Lowell gave him a guitar and Merle learned how to play by imitating Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Bob Wills.
He first got in trouble with the law at 14. He ran away at that age and hitchhiked his way through Texas.
He did time. Merle really did turn 21 in prison. After a burglary and attempted escape from jail, he was sent to San Quentin on a 15-year sentence. He finished high school behind bars and joined the prison band before an early release in 1960. Within three years, he had his first top 20 hit. His first #1 single, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," was sent to him by songwriters who didn't know about his criminal history.
He was in the audience at one of Johnny Cash's famous prison concerts. Merle was present at Cash's legendary 1959 performance at San Quentin.
He was pardoned by Ronald Reagan. Then-California governor Ronald Regan pardoned Merle for his prior life of crime in 1972.
He had a crush on Dolly Parton. But I mean. Who doesn't. (He later confessed to writing "Always Wanting You" about her.)
He was worried his prison record would hurt his career. His backup singer and wife Bonnie Owens quoted him as saying: "I'm really scared. I'm afraid someday I'm gonna be out there...and there's gonna be...some prisoner...in there the same time I was in, stand up--and they're gonna be about the third row down--and say, 'What do you think you're doing, 45200?"
He helped create the "Bakersfield Sound." During a time when country music out of Nashville was beginning to feel a little too smooth and over-produced for some, Merle's music was rough, twangy, and honky-tonk.
He had 38 chart-topping hit records. That checkered past didn't hurt the outlaw artist after all. He had 38 No. 1 singles including "Mama Tried," "Pancho and Lefty," "Workin' Man Blues," "Hungry Eyes," "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde," "Sing Me Back Home," and "The Fightin' Side of Me." A Rolling Stone review for his 1968 album Mama Tried explained it best: "Merle Haggard looks the part and sounds the part because he is the part."
He was buds with Johnny Cash. He became close friends with his musical hero. "We were always humorous with each other. I criticized him one time for something he did, and he answered me, 'Haggard, you have the ugliest face in country music.' We had that kind of sense of humor back then. ... He helped me every time he had a chance to help me, and I would have done the same for him."
He wrote "Okie From Muskogee" in response to the hippie movement. "That's how I got into it with the hippies.... I thought they were unqualified to judge America, and I thought they were lookin' down their noses at something that I cherished very much, and it pissed me off. And I thought, 'You sons of bitches, you've never been restricted away from this great, wonderful country, and yet here you are in the streets bitchin' about things." It became a raging hit at concerts, prompting standing ovations and teary responses from a song that voiced the private fears and frustrations of middle America.
He was obstinate, complicated, and refused to be a caricature. Merle wanted to follow "Okie from Muskogee" with Irma Jackson, a song about a romance between a white man and a black woman. This horrified his producers. In 1989, he wrote "Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn" when the Supreme Court declared flag burning protected speech. He bought his way out of his contract when his label refused to release the song, declaring: "It's always been my nature to fight the system." When country music fans boycotted the Dixie Chicks for speaking out against the Iraq War, he defended them, "Because they don't like George Bush, should we take their records off? I really found that sort of scary. Are we afraid of criticism? And if so, why? It seems to me, we're guilty in this country of doing everything we've always opposed all my life. I'm almost afraid to say something. It got to the point where my wife said, 'Be careful what you say.' Well, that's really not the America I'm used to."
He was a great impersonator. Merle was famously known among friends for his uncanny gift for impressions. His favorite subjects were Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash. Check it out!