Merle Haggard: From San Quentin To Country Music Hall of Fame

Merle Haggard shown in his younger days.
Merle Haggard shown in his younger days.
A much older Merle Haggard pictured more recently.
A much older Merle Haggard pictured more recently after years of touring and recording.

Merle Ronald Haggard

Born: April 7, 1937 in Bakersfield, California and is now 72 years of age.

If there was ever a person with a troubled childhood it would be Merle Haggard who lost his father James at the age of nine to a brain tumor. His father had played the fiddle in honky tonks prior to his death.

His mother would have him sent to juvenile detention centers but it made little difference in his behavior. He ran away from home at the age of 14 and shortly after was singing in a bar for $5 and all the beer he could drink.

He was influenced to make country music a career after singing for Lefty Frizzell before  a show and Frizzell let him sing a couple of songs during the concert and Merle was well received.

By 1957 he was getting more work in Bakersfield nightclubs but encountered financial problems that led him back to a life of robbery.  He made the mistake of robbing a restaurant (some reports say it was a tavern which is more likely considering the hour) while he and two other robbers were drunk.

The three robbers thought it was 3AM but it was in fact 10:30 PM and it was still open. Merle was captured and given a 15 year sentence in San Quentin prison.

He got in more trouble in prison by running a gambling racket and brewing beer in his cell. He was found drunk and placed in isolation and would talk to Caryl Chessman who was on death row and would become one of California’s best known death row residents.

Chessman convinced him to get his life together and he also would see Johnny Cash in concert at the prison which also was a factor in him turning his life around. He once told Cash he enjoyed the show at San Quentin and Johnny said he didn’t remember him being in the show and Haggard told him he wasn’t in the show but in the audience.

After having his sentence reduced after his second parole hearing he was released from San Quentin in 1960. He had a chance to escape with a fellow convict but turned it down.

It turned out the convict did escape but shot a police officer and was later executed. The decision not to escape was instrumental because if he had escaped and had been recaptured he may have never been able to pursue his career in country music.

Merle drove to Las Vegas to see the Wynn Stewart club show and he was given a chance to perform by one of the band members who knew Merle.  Stewart walked in while Merle was singing and hired him to be a bassist in his band because he was so impressed.

Stewart had a song called Sing A Sad Song which Merle wanted to record and Stewart let him record it and it became a hit nationally.

Swinging Doors would be his first song to rank high in the national country charts and it went to No.5 in the country in 1966. He would go on to have 37 straight songs reach the Top 10 with 23 of them reaching No.1 on the charts.

He would record many songs that had to do with his life in prison with him most famous being Branded Man plus some songs about prison not quite so well known like I Made the Prison Band.

1969 would see Hungry Eyes, Workin’ Man Blues and Okie From Muskogee go to No. 1.

1985 would see a new kind of country artist emerge with traditional country music taking a backseat and singers like Merle would not have the success they had enjoyed in the past.  He would have his last No.1 hit with Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star in 1987.

In 2004 he would release Unforgettable: Merle Haggard which features him singing in an entirely different genre of songs from the American songbook.

He sings classics like Unforgettable, Cry Me A River, Pennies From Heaven and the classic song from Casablanca, As Time Goes By.

After listening to clips of these songs at it only impresses me more with Merle that he could sing these songs out of his comfort zone so well.

To hear these clips:

The following videos are just a few of his many great songs recorded over the years but will still give a good representation of  the music of Merle Haggard and remind us again of he turned his life around from a life of crime to being elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

Merle singing his life story and how his mama tried to raise him better in this song Mama Tried.

Merle singing Today I Started Loving You Again in a duet with the late Tammy Wynette.

Merle singing I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am in his younger days.

Merle singing his hit Okie From Muskogee in 1968.

Merle singing one of my favorites Branded Man.

Merle singing in of his most popular patriotic songs The Fightin’ Side of Me.

Merle singing a little bit of his Working Man Blues.

Merle singing I’ll Fly Away shortly before his 72nd birthday in 2009 with an introduction by two singers on the stage telling about their respect for Merle Haggard before the show starts and then talking again after the show about Merle.

A duet of Merle and Johnny Cash singing Singing Me Back Home.


Author: Andrew Godfrey

Retired from newspaper work after 38 years. Had served in the Army in Hawaii and Vietnam in the 60's. Am now retired and living in Sulphur, Louisiana.

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