Merle Haggard is one of country music's most gifted and prolific songwriters. During the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, Haggard had an amazing streak of 26 Number One country singles. Haggard's early hits – including "The Fugitive," "Mama Tried," and "Okie From Muskogee" – comprise what Rolling Stone executive editor Jason Fine, in a 2009 profile of Haggard, called "the backbone of one of the greatest repertoires in all of American music, plain-spoken songs populated by the kinds of working people Haggard grew up with: farmers, hobos, convicts, widows, musicians and drunks." "Merle Haggard has always been as deep as it gets," said Bob Dylan. "Totally himself. Herculean. He definitely transcends the country genre."
Haggard is a staunch upholder of musical traditions, particularly honky tonk and Western swing, and leads one of country music's most improvisatory bands. Though an outspoken critic of the Nashville star system, Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994; that same year he was feted with two simultaneous tribute albums, one consisting of country superstars, the other a group of rootsy country mavericks. Haggard himself fits equally into both camps.
Haggard was born to a family of transplanted Oklahomans who were living in a converted boxcar in California. When he was nine, his father died of a brain tumor. He quit school in the eighth grade and hopped a freight train at age 14. Through the end of his teens, he mostly roamed the Southwest. Haggard had been in and out of reformatories – from which he frequently escaped – by the age of 14 for such petty crimes as car theft. A 20-year-old married father, he was arrested for breaking into a cafe (drunk, he thought the booming business was closed) and spent nearly three years in San Quentin. He was paroled in 1960. (In 1972, then–California governor Ronald Reagan expunged Haggard's criminal record, granting him a full pardon.)
After prison, Haggard went back to Bakersfield and worked for his brother digging ditches. He started playing lead guitar in a local country band, and by 1962, when he went to Las Vegas to back singer Wynn Stewart, Haggard had decided to make music his career.
In 1963 he formed an enduring partnership with Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owens, the owners of Tally Records, an independent label in the Bakersfield area for which Haggard made his early recordings. In 1963 Haggard's first release sold only 200 copies, but his second, "Sing Me a Sad Song," made Number 19 on the Billboard country chart. He recorded with Tally through 1965, and Owens remains one of Haggard's close associates. But after Haggard's third solo single "(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" hit the C&W Top Ten, he was signed by Capitol.
Haggard formed his own backing group, the Strangers, with whom he began touring an average of 200 nights a year. (The Strangers released their first album of instrumentals in 1970.) After Haggard's first marriage ended in divorce, he married Buck Owens' ex-wife, singer Bonnie Owens. He had previously recorded with her for Tally, but their duet career began in earnest with their first joint Capitol LP, Just Between the Two of Us (Number 4 C&W, 1965). They shared hit records, tours, and awards until their divorce in 1978. (A few years later, Owens returned to touring and recording as a backup singer with Haggard.)
In 1966 "Swinging Doors" and "The Bottle Let Me Down" hit the Top Five on the country chart, and later in the year "The Fugitive" became his first country Number One. He has amassed more than 100 country chart singles since – including 38 Number One hits – and had at least one Top Five country hit every year between 1966 and 1987. Among his biggest hits are "Mama Tried," "Sing Me Back Home," "Hungry Eyes," "It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad)," "Everybody's Had the Blues," "If We Make It Through December," "It's All in the Movies," and "Big City." Of the hundreds of songs he's written, many have become country standards (his "Today I Started Loving You Again" has been recorded by more than 400 artists). Haggard became a controversial figure during the Vietnam War era by extolling the virtues of patriotism, albeit sometimes with his tongue in cheek, in "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie From Muskogee."
But Haggard was more a traditionalist than a hard-line conservative. His many recordings – more than 65 albums since 1963 – include a tribute to Western swing pioneer Bob Wills (A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World); a gospel tribute, The Land of Many Churches, which included backing from the Carter Family; I Love Dixie Blues, a 1973 tribute to Dixieland jazz recorded in New Orleans; and Same Train, a Different Time, in honor of his first idol, Jimmie Rodgers. He played at the White House in 1973 for President Nixon and his family, and later for the Reagans at their California ranch. His music was part of the Apollo 16 mission to the moon, per the crew's request.
In 1978 he married one of his backup singers, Leona Williams; that marriage also ended in divorce. (Briefly married for a fourth time, he married again in the early 1990s. He has two young children with his fifth wife, and, with his first, three grown children, two of whom have pursued country-music careers.) In 1981 Haggard published an autobiography (cowritten with Peggy Russell), Sing Me Back Home.
An occasional actor as well as singer, he appeared on TV in The Waltons and Centennial. He made his movie debut in 1968's Killer Three and was featured the next year in From Nashville With Music. In 1980 he made a cameo appearance in Bronco Billy, singing a duet with Clint Eastwood, "Bar Room Buddies" (Number One C&W, 1980). In addition to Bonnie Owens and Leona Williams, Haggard has also recorded duets with both George Jones and Willie Nelson.
Haggard's hits began to wind down in the late 1980s as the new "hat acts" began to monopolize the country chart. After 25 years on the road, Haggard curtailed touring to an extent, spending more time on his ranch near Lake Shasta. Just after the release of his first album in four years, 1994, Arista/Nashville issued Mama's Hungry Eyes: A Tribute to Merle Haggard, with tracks by Clint Black, Brooks and Dunn, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, and Alabama, among others. Concurrently, the independent, California-based label Hightone released Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute to Merle Haggard, with contributions from Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, Joe Ely, John Doe (X), Dave Alvin (the Blasters), Billy Joe Shaver, and others. In October 1994 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
While the music industry lauded Haggard with awards, tribute albums, and lavish reissues (the most expansive being 1996's career-spanning, four-disc Capitol box set, Down Every Road), Haggard felt he was given short shift by his label, Curb. After both his 1994 and 1996 albums were issued with near identical, nondescript cover art and released with virtually no promotion, Haggard left Curb Records. His 1999 autobiography, Merle Haggard's House of Memories: For the Record, was accompanied in stores by a double-disc collection of rerecorded versions of his greatest hits, For the Record: 43 Legendary Hits. A handful of the songs featured Haggard dueting with the varied likes of Willie Nelson, Brooks and Dunn, and pop singer Jewel; his new version of his 1984 Number One hit "That's the Way Love Goes" with Jewel reached Number 56 on the country singles chart.
If that collaboration raised eyebrows, it was nothing compared to his signing in 2000 to the independent Anti- Records, distributed by punk label Epitaph. His Anti- debut, If I Could Only Fly, received widespread critical acclaim and peaked at Number 26 on the C&W chart. Also in 2000, Haggard recorded a pair of gospel albums, Cabin in the Hills and Two Old Friends (with Albert E. Brumley Jr.), which he sold exclusively on his Web site and in Wal-Mart stores.
In 2001, Haggard released a set of originals and classics by Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams and Hank Thompson called Roots, Vol. 1; he recorded it live in his home with the Strangers and Frizzell's former guitarist, Norman Stephens. In 2003, a year after the controversy over the Dixie Chicks' anti-George W. Bush comments in London, Haggard released another album of social commentary, this time coming out on the side of the anti-war crowd. Haggard Like Never Before, released on his own Hag label, includes the song "That's the News," which criticizes the media for covering fluffy domestic stories such as the Laci Peterson murder rather than tackling more serious, harder-hitting events such as the Iraq War. In media interviews, Haggard defended the Dixie Chicks, calling right-wing attacks of the group a "verbal witch-hunt and lynching."
In 2004 he retreated from social commentary for a moment, releasing an album of pop standards on EMI, Unforgettable, which included his readings of songs such as "Pennies from Heaven" and "As Time Goes By." He returned to gritty social commentary on 2005's Chicago Wind, which included "America First," a song criticizing Bush Administration policy and suggesting that America withdraw from Iraq. Haggard returned to country radio in 2006, dueting with country star Gretchen Wilson on the song "Politically Uncorrect" from her album All Jacked Up; its lyrics – "Nothing wrong with the Bible, nothing wrong with the flag" – return Haggard to earlier political sentiments. That year, the Recording Academy presented Haggard the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys. In 2007 Haggard retreated from social commentary yet again on The Bluegrass Sessions, which featured collaborations with Marty Stuart and Alison Krauss on a set of bluegrass versions of some of his songs.
Bonnie Owens, his former wife and collaborator, died of Alzheimer's disease in 2006, at age 76; in late 2008, at 71, Haggard himself had surgery done to remove part of a cancerous lung. But he was back playing on stage only two months later. In "The Fighter: The Life & Times of Merle Haggard," Jason Fine's extensive profile of Haggard in Rolling Stone, the 72-year-old singer came off as feisty as ever – a weed-smoking firebrand who refused to cede control of his career to anyone and railed at the DEA agents who flew over his 200-acre property in California. Haggard was also a man prone to "unpredictable rhythms: He might be quiet for long stretches, then his mood will brighten, and he'll launch into ideas for a new album, or his plan to start a business selling catfish from his lake, or a joke – often dirty – that's punctuated by a staccato, lascivious-sounding laugh that causes his whole body to shake." The profile detailed Haggard's late-period resurgence – he had just made 11 albums in the span of a decade – as well as the singer's hard-living past, his fascination with extra-terrestrials, and his compulsion to keep recording and performing live. "I felt like all those guys who all meant something to me," Haggard said, referring to peers like Willie Nelson, Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings, "would be terribly disappointed in me if I didn't continue." Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chuck Eddy contributed to this story.