Merle Haggard: 'Prison Is the Biggest Business in America'

Country music's most famous ex-con speaks out on the number of Americans in prison and changes his stance on marijuana

Merle Haggard is concerned about the number of Americans in prison. Credit: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Big Barrel

Merle Haggard has changed his stance on pot smoking since his "Okie From Muskogee" days. The former anti-hippy and right wing hero is now putting the bake back in Bakersfield with Willie Nelson on their recent collaboration, "It's All Gone to Pot."

"At the time I wrote 'Okie From Muskogee,' I didn't smoke,” Haggard tells Men’s Journal. "It was '68. I had been brainwashed like most of America about what marijuana would and wouldn't doI thought it was responsible for the flower children walking around with their mouths open. It was not so. But if a guy doesn't learn anything in 50 years, there's something wrong with him. I've learned a lot about it, and America has, too."

It wasn't drugs but attempted robbery that landed the California native behind bars in 1957. It was in San Quentin Prison where he would eventually hear Johnny Cash perform, partly inspiring his decision to join the prison band and turn his life around to pursue a music career. 

It's reasonable to assume if Haggard had been smoking weed instead of breaking into diners, his songwriting wouldn't have been so informed, (or realized at all). 

"I believe that if you break the law and get caught, you should go to jail," reasons the 78-year-old country icon. "But we're in a hard time in America now, with all the trouble with police in the cities. Prison is the biggest business in America. Bigger than marijuana! You got the money, you can build a prison out in Nevada and it'll be filled before you finish building it. That's a fact, and that's a shame."

Between Haggard's stance on prison reform and his new appreciation of marijuana, it sounds like country music’s legendary badass has some new songwriting territory to explore. His most recent album, Django and Jimmie, with longtime pal Willie Nelson, debuted at Number One on the country charts.