Merle Haggard was born April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, Calif. The death of his father when Haggard was just 9 years old became the catalyst that led to a squandered youth. At the same time, his love for the wandering songs of artists like JimmieRodgers led to an errant passion for the gleaming, endless railroad tracks and the siren song of slow freights and hobo jungles. It also led, along the way, to numerous brushes with the law.
Unfocused, unruly and unsettled, Haggard learned early to walk the mean streets. As a teenager he took on every unskilled job that would have him, from oil field roustabout to hay-pitcher to short order cook. That was the bright side. He also saw the insides of various penal institutions for crimes ranging from burglary to auto theft and even to escape. Before he had reached the age of 21, and not long after having married his first wife, Leona, he was serving time in the notorious San Quentin Penitentiary, thanks to a bungled attempt at burglarizing a tavern. But the three-year stretch within those gray and desolate walls became the experience that totally altered his view of life. After a stint in solitary confinement for making home brew, he abruptly assumed the role of model prisoner and earned a parole in 1960. Over a decade later, in 1972, California Gov. Ronald Reagan granted him a full pardon.
Better times awaited just around the corner. While his post-prison life was a typical tale of scratching out a meager survival, it also saw the initiation of his atypical music career. Although he had made his stage debut at 16, sitting in on a Lefty Frizzell performance, it wasn't until after San Quentin that Haggard joined a band as rhythm bass guitarist and began to sing in the clubs and the dives of the infamous "Beer Can Hill" area of Bakersfield.
In one brief stretch, his life took a major turnaround. He was signed by Tally Records, owned by close friend Lewis Tally, and began cutting singles in a garage behind Tally's house. His first single, "Singing My Heart Out," received some regional airplay on the West coast. It was in 1963 that he eventually broke into the Top 20 of Billboard's country charts with his first national hit, "Sing a Sad Song."
Haggard's next few singles "(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," "Swinging Doors" and "The Bottle Let Me Down" all landed within the Top 10. Meanwhile, at the height of this exciting period, he married Bonnie Owens, who also recorded. In a short time he entered the No. 1 spot for the first time with "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive." He also won his first top male vocalist of the year award from the Academy of Country Music in 1966.
In 1969, with help from then band member Eddie Burris, Haggard ventured into the arena of social commentary, voicing his patriotic feelings with "Okie From Muskogee," the song that was to have the most dramatic impact on his career. Released during the height of the Vietnam War, it would also be his most controversial, as well as another No. 1 record.
As a singer, Haggard openly admits to "borrowing" the stylings of his idols, Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills, and speaks of such beyond-the-genre influences upon his music as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Still, it's his own charismatic individuality, along with those rich vocal textures that so well express the heart and soul of Haggard, that have always come shining through. In addition to his vocal performance, he has also spent a great deal of time perfecting his skills as a guitarist.
Ultimately more than 40 of his singles have attained the No. 1 position in the major trade magazines. He has released over 65 albums and was named the CMA's entertainer of the year in 1970. In 1994, Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 2000, Haggard continued his rebel musical ways by signing with Anti Records, a California-based independent label known for its punk and rock acts. His first album for the label, If I Could Only Fly, was released to critical acclaim. He followed that with Roots, Volume I in 2001. With a nod to Jimmie Rodgers, The Peer Sessions was released in 2002. That's the News followed on Haggard's own label in 2003, along with a co-headlining tour with Marty Stuart.