Born during the Great Depression, Merle Haggard's family followed the migration toward the West Coast and settled in Bakersfield, California. In and out of trouble with the law throughout most of his early years, Haggard was the epitome of the country outlaw sound he helped create. After ending up spending three years in prison in San Quentin, where he played in the prison band, Haggard turned his attention to music. California's governor, Ronald Reagan, issued Haggard a full pardon in 1972.
Haggard's first top 10 hit was "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" in 1965. From the 1960s through to his death in 2016, Haggard had 38 #1 country singles including classics such as "Mama Tried," "Okie from Muskogee," and "Today I Start Loving You Again," which has been covered more than 400 times. He told Rolling Stone
magazine that the song that tops his list of songs he wishes he had written is Johnny Cash's "Ring Of Fire
." He also gave his definition of great song: "It's got to make a blue flame go behind my left ear and chill bumps run all over my body."
Rarely shying away from offering his opinion, Haggard drew criticism from some during the Vietnam War for his patriotism at a time when the war was unpopular. Songs such as "The Fightin' Side of Me" were considered precursors to country music's patriotic anthems that later came into vogue. On the other hand, Haggard defended the Dixie Chicks when they came under fire in 2002 for making public statements that were critical of George W. Bush.
Haggard made his film acting debut in 1968 when he appeared in Killers Three, a western crime drama written by Dick Clark, in 1968. Haggard played the role of a sheriff and sang his hit "Mama Tried." He has also been an occasional television actor, appearing in episodes of The Waltons and Centennial. In 1980, he made a cameo appearance in the movie Bronco Billy and sang a duet of "Bar Room Buddies" with Clint Eastwood, which topped the County charts.
Considered by many to be a traditionalist, Haggard has recorded several tribute albums for artists ranging from Elvis Presley to swing artist Bob Willis, which sparked a renewed interest in country swing. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2010, discussing his album I've Seen It Go Away, he said of America and Country music, "It seems to me we peaked somewhere around 1975."
Despite his criticisms of country music, Haggard was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2010, he was one of four recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors along with Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, and composer Jerry Herman. Haggard said in a Rolling Stone interview that Winfrey said to him during the event, "You know, we've come the farthest."
Merle Haggard recalled getting his first guitar to Uncut: "My brother was running a filling station, and he took in a guitar and gave a guy a couple of dollars worth of gas when I was about 10. He brought it over to my house and set it there in the closet, and it stayed there for a while. My mother got it out and showed me a couple of chords my dad had showed her. He'd passed away by that time."
Haggard was a prisoner in San Quentin when Johnny Cash arrived to give his first-ever prison performance. Haggard was serving a sentence for burglary, but it was hardly the first time the 18-year-old found himself caught in the system. From the time he was 11 years old, in fact, he'd been in and out of incarceration.
His burglary conviction was supposed to get him 15 years in San Quentin, but he only ended up serving two. In a strange way, it might have been the best thing to ever happen to him, or at least the most transformational. For, it was during that prison run that he saw Johnny Cash and saw his own destiny before him.
"He had the right attitude," Haggard said of Cash. "He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards - he did everything the prisoners wanted to do."