6 April 1937, Bakersfield, California, USA. Like a razors edge, Merle Haggard sings is how John Stewart described his voice in Eighteen Wheels, and that razor has been honed by his rough and rowdy ways. In the 30s Haggards parents migrated from the Dustbowl to the land of milk and honey, California. Life, however, was almost as bleak there and Haggard himself was born in a converted boxcar. His father, who worked on the Santa Fe railway, died of a stroke when Haggard was nine. Many of Haggards songs are about those early years: Mamas Hungry Eyes, California Cottonfields, Theyre Tearin The Labour Camps Down and The Way It Was In 51. Haggard became a tearaway who, despite the efforts of his Christian mother (Mama Tried), spent many years in reform schools. When only 17, he married a waitress and they had four children during their 10 years together. His wife showed disdain for his singing and Haggard says, Any listing of famous battlefields should include my marriage to Leona Hobbs. Haggard provided for the children through manual labour and armed robbery. He was sent to San Quentin in 1957, charged with burglary; a Johnny Cash concert in January 1958 led to him joining the prison band. Songs from his prison experiences include Sing Me Back Home and Branded Man.
Back in Bakersfield in 1960, Haggard started performing and found work accompanying Wynn Stewart. Only 200 copies were pressed of his first single, Singing My Heart Out, but he made the national charts with his second, Stewarts composition Sing A Sad Song, for the small Tally label. Capitol Records took over his contract and reissued (All My Friends Are Going To Be) Strangers in 1965. The records success prompted him to call his band the Strangers, its mainstays being Roy Nichols (b. 21 October 1932, Chandler, Arizona, USA, d. 3 July 2001, Bakersfield, California, USA) on lead guitar and Norm Hamlet on steel. When Im A Lonesome Fugitive became a country number 1 in 1966, it was clear that a country star with a prison record was a very commercial proposition. Haggard recorded an album of love songs with his second wife, Bonnie Owens, but, despite its success, they never repeated it. In 1969 a chance remark on the tour bus led to him writing Okie From Muskogee, a conservative reply to draft-card burning and flower power. President Nixon declared Haggard his favourite country singer, while Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, gave him a full pardon. Johnny Cash refused to perform the song at the White House and Phil Ochs, a spearhead of youth culture, sang it to annoy his own fans. Some suggest that the irony in Haggards song has been overlooked, but he has since confirmed his dislike of hippies - though several rock bands, notably the Beach Boys, performed the song as a piece of counter-culture irony. Haggard sang more specifically about anti-Vietnam demonstrators in The Fightin Side Of Me, but his song about an interracial love affair, Irma Jackson, was not released at first because Capitol thought it would harm his image.
Around this time, Haggard wrote and recorded several glorious singles that rank with the best of country music and illustrate his personal credo: I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am, Silver Wings, Today I Started Loving You Again and If We Make It Through December. He also sang songs by other writers, notably Tommy Collins, and recorded tributes to Jimmie Rodgers (a double album, Same Train, A Different Time), Bob Wills (an album showing that Haggard is a fine fiddle player) and Lefty Frizzell (the song Goodbye Lefty). Another of Haggards consuming passions was model trains and he recorded an album titled My Love Affair With Trains. Like most successful country artists, he has also recorded Christmas and religious albums, The Land Of Many Churches being partly recorded at San Quentin jail (Haggard has not officially recorded a full prison album because he does not want to copy Johnny Cash).
Between 1973 and 1976, Haggard achieved nine consecutive number 1 records on the US country charts, with his tally of number 1 records surpassed only by Conway Twitty. In 1977, shortly after moving to MCA, he recorded a touching tribute album to Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires. In 1978 he divorced Bonnie Owens and married a backing singer, Leona Williams. She wrote several songs for him and also recorded a duet album, but in 1984, they too were divorced (Haggard divorced his fourth wife in 1991). Haggard had often written about alcohol (Swinging Doors, The Bottle Let Me Down), but his MCA albums reveal an increasing concern about his own drinking habits. Less introspective following a move to Epic in 1981, he had a major country hit with a revival of Poncho And Lefty with Willie Nelson. He continued to write prolifically (I Wish Things Were Simple Again, Lets Chase Each Other Around The Room), but also began reviving songs of yesteryear, including There! Ive Said It Again and Sea Of Heartbreak. Coming full circle, Amber Waves Of Grain showed his concern for the plight of the American farmer.
By 1990, when he moved to the Curb Records label, Haggard had notched up the incredible tally of 95 country hits on the Billboard chart, including a remarkable 38 chart toppers, but only three years later was declared bankrupt. This setback seemed to do nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for touring, but although many of the new hat acts of the 90s owed much to Haggard, notably Randy Travis and Clint Black, Haggard himself became old hat for a couple of years. The reassessment of his work started with two tribute albums by contemporary performers, Mamas Hungry Eyes and Tulare Dust, and some fine recent work by the man himself on his own Hag label. He also began recording for Anti, a subsidiary of the alternative label Epitaph Records, with 2000s If I Could Only Fly earning particular acclaim. Haggards new profile led to a major label recording contract with his old label Capitol. The first product to emerge from the new contract was an idiosyncratic collection of covers of standards from the great American songbook. Haggard then reunited with producer Jimmy Bowen to record 2005s Chicago Wind.
Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1996, confirming his pioneering influence in the annals of country music. He remains a consistently interesting and vital recording artist who refuses to rest on his laurels, a stance which has endeared him to successive generations of country singers.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.