Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California. Merle’s parents James Francis and Flossie Mae Haggard had moved from Oklahoma three years earlier, when their barn burned during the Great Depression in 1934.
The album pictured above is one of the first Merle Haggard albums in my LP record collection.
Haggard lived out a lot of the songs he wrote and sang. He was a very prolific writer and wrote most of his major hits alone, but did collaborate on a few like Okie From Muskogee.
He grew up in a refrigerated box car, that had been converted into a house and was raised there, after being born in Kern General Hospital in Bakersfield, California according to his biography.
Left Home At Eleven
It was a jolt for Haggard when his father died, when he was only nine years old. Two years later he left home. His mother sent him to live with his great-uncle and great-aunt in Modesto, California.
He said that he really was 21 and in prison, but the part about life without parole was only used to fill out the line.
Haggard was not the kind to stay in one place long and talked two girls into hopping a freight train, that was headed to Los Angeles. They only had $5 so he bought what food he could to feed himself and the two girls.
Then they left the train and he stole a car by hot wiring it. Only problem was that the car traveled only five miles, before running out of gas, so they had to start walking. However, they were soon picked up by policeman in a squad car and Haggard refused to give his name, but the girls gave their names.
Ironically, when all three returned home they were kept from attending school, for three days by their parents.
Merle and some of his friends attempted a burglary of a Bakersfield bar in 1957 and he was meted out a sentence from six months to 15 years. At first he was a real troublemaker in prison, by being very uncooperative. This landed him in solitary for his 21st birthday. His time in solitary gave him the time he needed to get his act together and afterward he was a model prisoner. He was paroled at the age of 23 and then began his road to being a country music star. Governor Ronald Reagan would later give Haggard a full pardon.
A more recent photo of Merle Haggard.
Merle Haggard’s Music
His first Top 10 song would be (My Friends Are Going to Be (Strangers) in 1964, which went to #10 and is one of my favorite Merle Haggard songs. His first #1 hit was I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” in 1966. That would begin a string of 38 #1 hits from 1966-1987.
Even the great George Jones only had 14 #1 hits, so Haggard having 24 more songs reach the #1 spot tells me, that Haggard was even more popular than I had thought.
Surprisingly Swinging Doors, one of his biggest hits only climbed to #5 on the country music charts.
Branded Man would be his second #1 hit in 1967. He had too many #1 hits in his career, to mention all of them individually, but some of my personal favorites were Sing Me Back Home, Mama Tried, Mama’s Hungry Eyes, Workin’ Man Blues, Okie From Muskogee, Fightin’ Side of Me, If We Make It Through December, Big City (a song I never get tired of) and his last #1 hit Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star.
His discography can be seen at this web page and when you scroll down to his list of singles, then you can see how successful he was during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s in particular.
His personal life was not an easy one with four marriages, that lasted from 1956-1991. His second wife was country singer Bonnie Owens ex-wife of Buck Owens and she was a maid of honor, when he married his third wife. Haggard married another country Leona Williams in 1978 and they were divorced in 1983. He married Theresa Ann Lane on September 11, 1993 and they are still married 21 years later.
Haggard started smoking marijuana at the age of 41 and admitted buying $2,000 worth of cocaine in 1983. Part of his lung was removed in November of 2008, after he was discovered to have lung cancer.
Entered Country Music Hall of Fame
Twenty eight years after his first #1 hit I’m A Lonesome Fugitive Merle Haggard would be admitted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. The following link takes readers to his page at the Country Music Hall of Fame website:
Summary – Merle Haggard wrote a lot of songs, that had to do with his life experiences, probably more than any other country singer, since Hank Williams did in the 40’s and 50’s. Like Williams he wrote a lot of his music by himself. He wrote songs about what life was like for transplanted Oklahomans, that moved to California and songs about how it was to be hungry. He wrote songs about his time in prison and how it was difficult to be a part of society again, after being released and his songs about patriotism, Okie From Muskogee and Fightin’ Side of Me and songs like Big City and Workin’ Man Blues that told the plight of people working for a living. He is now recording for an obscure record label Epitaph, but it doesn’t mean we have heard the last of Merle Haggard. He showed us all that being in prison isn’t always a bad thing, as he said he was one of those that prison helped and he is a testament, of how someone can change and be successful, even after being in prison.