When Johnny Cash performed on New Year’s Day, 1959, at San Quentin, the notorious California state prison, a 22-year-old, Merle Haggard, #A-45200 who was serving a 15 year sentence for repeated arrests and escapes, was sitting in the audience. That event inspired him to pursue a musical career upon his release in 1960 and backed by his band, the Strangers, he went on to produce nine gold or platinum certified albums and 38 Billboard number one country songs. This included a number one or two hit single every four months in the late 1960s. He continued to release successful albums into the 2000s.
About The Hag
Born in 1937 in Bakersfield, CA, he was the son of “Okies” who relocated during the Depression after the family’s barn burned down in 1934. They lived in a converted railroad boxcar and Merle’s father died when he was nine, which impacted him greatly. He played the fiddle and guitar which were given to him by his brother and learned to play on his own at age 12. Merle was rebellious, hopping train cars and becoming a repeating delinquent of violence, drugs, gambling, stealing, writing bad checks, shoplifting and robbery.
Once out of prison, he refined his music into the “Bakersfield Sound” which encompassed the themes of drunken heartache, loneliness and listlessness and it became a reaction to the Nashville Sound. His first “original autobiographical masterpiece,” as the author calls it, was released in 1967 and “Branded Man” became a hit.
The following year, a tribute to his own bookkeeper mother and the memory of her painful death was released called “Mama Tried.” To this day, many prison inmates have the title tattooed on themselves. He continued writing his odes to the working class and became known as the “poet of the common man” with hits like “Hungry Eyes,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “Holding things Together.”
The opening song on his album “Serving 190 Proof” is called “Footlights” and tells what it’s like to go on stage five minutes after learning that friend and recording artist Lefty Frizzell has died. He later recorded it with George Jones. Merle also opened for Bob Dylan and they toured together for almost a year, even on occasion singing together.
But was “Okie from Muskogee” that endeared him to the outspoken common everyday man, and, as the book’s writer admits, was the song “that finally made the mainstream sit up and take notice of Haggard.” In a 2001 interview, Haggard called the song “a documentation of the uneducated that lives in America at the time.” It became his signature song after topping the country charts for a month in 1969. One year later, in 1970, the “Fightin’ Side of Me” was released and became the anthem of the Silent Majority and of patriotism.
Book author Marc Eliot is the New York Times bestselling biographer of Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Michael Douglas, Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, Walt Disney, Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Donna Summer, Jack Nicholson and the Eagles. His work has been published in more than 25 languages and he speaks about film to universities. He lives in New York City and in Woodstock, New York. He exhaustively interviewed band members, friends and Haggard’s family so the biography is well-researched with anecdotes and colorful language describing womanizing, sex, five marriages and divorces.
However, a high point occurred for him in 1972 when then Governor Ronald Reagan awarded him a full and unconditional pardon. But the best part of the book is his partnership with Bonnie Owens, the former wife of country music star Buck Owens and later Merle’s wife. She was herself a talented musician who the author depicts as a “mother figure” to Merle who helped with his song writing and commercial success.
But Haggard also suffered bankruptcy and disillusionment until close to death when he said, “I’m going home to see my dad,” and he died on his 79th birthday of double pneumonia at his ranch in Shasta County, CA. For most of us fans, the highlight of his life was being named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2010 when everyone witnessed his enviable contributions to country music. But he also wrote of himself in books: “My House of Memories: An Autobiography, in 2010, and “Sing Me Back Home: My Story” with Peggy Russell in 1983.
He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1977 and into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. He appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in 1974, was star of a TV special in 1972 called “Let Me Tell You About A Song” and performed and wrote the theme song to the TV series “Movin’ On.” He even performed a duet with Clint Eastwood singing the song “Bar Room Buddies.” He also recorded with George Jones and Willie Nelson.
Merle Haggard personified the American dream, altered country music from folk music to country rock, brought the Bakersfield Sound into the mainstream, was a “bad boy turned into a good man,” and lived the rags to riches story most still dream of attaining, all the while finding “the peaceful side of life.” Marc Eliot’s book will make you love Merle Haggard even more.