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Widely regarded as country music's most famous bad boy, Merle Haggard came from a poverty-stricken childhood, served time in a maximum-security prison, but ultimately emerged as a respected singer and performer. Following multiple jail sentences and a three-year stint at San Quentin State Prison in California, Haggard turned his life around with the help of music as well as sound advice from his lifelong friend, music icon Johnny Cash. Haggard scored multiple No. 1 hits on Billboard's country music charts for several decades, including his signature tracks "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" (1967), "Okie From Muskogee" (1969), and "If We Make it Through December" (1973). Through his music, Haggard opened up about his troubled past, provided a voice for America's working class, and inspired artists from all genres to tell stories with songs. In 1994, Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, a testament to his compelling personal journey from outlaw to music legend. Touring and recording well into his 70s, Haggard became one of the key bridges between country's outlaw past and the bad boys of the contemporary scene. Merle Haggard died of complications from pneumonia on his 79th birthday, April 6, 2016.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, CA to James Frances Haggard, a railroad carpenter, and his wife, Flossie Mae Harp. The Haggard family moved from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life, converted an old boxcar into their home, but still struggled to put food on the table. The future country music star was nine when his father died of a stroke, leaving his mother to work as a bookkeeper to support her family. Being so close to his father, the death hit Haggard hard and turned him into a rebel at a very young age. He often skipped school and once hopped aboard a freight train to Fresno before the police picked him up. At 15, Haggard and a friend were arrested for suspicion of robbery and spent two-and-a-half weeks in jail. Yet his father, who had played fiddle and guitar, also left Haggard with the gift of music. He began playing the guitar and looked up to his idol, country singer and songwriter Lefty Frizzell.
Haggard earned a little bit of money playing in bars, but it was not enough to keep him out of trouble. He was arrested in 1957 for a robbery attempt at a Bakersfield tavern and was sent to San Quentin state prison. He was kept under serious watch due to his history of attempting to escape from various prison and juvenile halls. On New Year's Day 1959, Haggard found his true calling after watching Johnny Cash's live performance inside San Quentin. Even though he was not a Cash fan at first, Haggard was awed by the singer's conviction and stage presence. He spent the rest of his time at San Quentin earning a high school equivalence diploma, worked in the textile plant, and played in the prison band. Haggard was released from San Quentin in 1960, having served three years of his sentence.
After his release from prison, Haggard hit the ground running with his music career. He took part in Bakersfield's country music scene, performing in local clubs before joining Wynn Stewart's band as a bassist in 1962. He and Cash eventually met in 1963 after both appeared on a TV show in Chicago, where Haggard recalled the singer offered him a Dexedrine pill and wine after the former mentioned he had been up for days. Haggard recorded his first single, the Stewart-composed "Sing a Sad Song" the following year. He landed in the Billboard Country Top 10 with the song "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" (1965), followed by his first No. 1 hit "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive." Capitol Records signed Haggard and released his debut album, Same Train, Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers (1968).
By decade's end, Haggard released one of his signature songs "Okie From Muskogee," a humorous, socio-political commentary that was widely regarded as the unofficial anthem of the Silent Majority - a group of Americans who abstained from voicing their opinions during the Vietnam War. During a guest appearance on "The Johnny Cash Show" (ABC, 1969-1971), Haggard finally revealed to Cash that he had watched him perform as an inmate at San Quentin. The singer later said that moment made them even closer, almost like brothers. Following Cash's advice, Haggard opened up about his troubled past through his music, releasing songs from Sing Me Back Home (1967) about a fellow inmate and friend named Rabbit who was executed after attempting to escape San Quentin, to "Mama Tried" (1968), where the singer apologized to his mother for all the pain he caused her as a young man.
The 1970s saw a rise in Haggard's popularity, not only in country music but also with the mainstream audience. He released the album A Tribute to the Best Dam Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills) in honor of one of his musical idols, the father of Western swing, Bob Wills. Haggard reached No. 58 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the track "Carolyn" (1971), also a chart-topper in the country genre, shortly before then-California Governor Ronald Reagan granted him a full pardon for his past crimes in March 1972. Haggard continued to dominate charts with songs such as "Grandma Harp" (1972) and the theme song of the NBC series "Movin' On" (1974-76). The singer championed working class America with another hit "If We Make It Through December," from his holiday-themed album A Christmas Present (1973). Married five times, Haggard was also a notable ladies' man who wrote the country hit "Always Wanting You" (1975), inspired by his crush on Dolly Parton. He made several acting attempts throughout his career, including a supporting role as a balladeer in the action-adventure film "The Legend of the Lone Ranger" (1981).
Haggard earned his first Grammy Award in 1981 for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male for the 1983 single "That's the Way Love Goes." He scored his last No. 1 hit in 1987 with the song "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star." It took several years for the recording industry to honor Haggard for his work, honoring him with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 and an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 1994. He was a 2010 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, which recognized artists who have contributed to the American culture. That same year, Haggard released I Am What I Am, which peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Haggard's final album, Working In Tennessee, was released in October 2011. After a lengthy period of ill health, Merle Haggard died of complications from pneumonia on April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday.
By Marc Cuenco
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