Merles brother, Lowell, and his sister, Lillian, were teenagers when his mother, Flossie, found out she was pregnant with Merle. "She sort of was embarrassed about it", Haggard says. "The children were nearly up and gone. They were going to move into this new little place. And then I came along." Haggard was born on April 6th, 1937. "When he was an infant, and I mean an infant Lillian once recalled, "Mother would turn the radio on, and when he heard what was then called 'Western music' his little feet would start keeping rhythm with the beat. We would change the station, nothing would happen. Put it back, the feet start moving again."
Haggard's early songs narrate the difficult circumstances of his own life: The son of Dust Bowl migrants who fled from Oklahoma to California's San Joaquin Valley, Haggard lost his father at age nine, hopped his first train a year later, and spent his teenage years in and out of juvenile institutions, military schools and, eventually, San Quentin.
Haggard is deeply nostalgic, and he often writes songs about America in an idealized past, a time when hard work, honesty and individualism defined the national character. These traits are the same ones he ascribes to his father, James Haggard, a carpenter for the Santa Fe railroad who died of a stroke when Merle was nine. "The only thing I knew that my dad hated for sure was a liar," Haggard wrote in his second autobiography, 1999's My House of Memories. "I don't remember any sermons on the subject, but it was something I always knew. Everyone knew his word was good. Ever since my early childhood, I have found more importance in the trait of honesty than maybe most children."
When Haggard was 11, his brother, Lowell, gave him a used Bronson guitar. "For a boy who was shy," Haggard wrote, "that guitar gave me a new and exciting way of saying something." A few years later, Haggard learned to perfectly replicate the pleading phrasing of Lefty Frizzell's hillbilly tenor as heard on the hit "I Love You a Thousand Ways."
Haggard loved the 'brilliance and clarity' of Lefty Frizzell's music, and he studied Frizzell's effortless onstage charisma, which came less naturally to Haggard. "For three or four years I didn't sing anything but Lefty Frizzell songs," he wrote, "and then because Lefty was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers I learned to imitate him too."
When Haggard was 14, he and a friend bought tickets to see Lefty Frizzell perform at the Rainbow Gardens in Bakersfield. They got so drunk on Burgie beer before the show that they passed out on the front lawn and missed the first set. Two years later, when Frizzell returned to Bakersfield, Haggard snuck backstage. Someone told Frizzell that Haggard could impersonate him, so Frizzell gave him an audition. Frizzell was so bowled over he refused to go on unless Haggard performed first. Haggard sang two Jimmie Rodgers songs and Hank Williams's "You Win Again," and decided then and there that he wanted to be a professional country singer. "It's like the guy who catches his first fish," Haggard says. "I was really the one who was hooked."
Like Johnny Cash, who made some of his greatest music later in his life, Haggard is also in the midst of a late-period resurgence few would have expected a dozen years ago, when he was broke and playing casinos and county fairs. But while Cash handed over the reins of his career to producer Rick Rubin, Haggard refuses to cede control to anyone. He still has the same manager he started with in 1961, Fuzzy Owen, and he still runs his business in what could be described as an impulsive, haphazard manner.
Haggard ran into Johnny Cash in the men's room before a TV appearance in Chicago in 1963. As they stood at the urinal, Cash asked if they'd met before. Haggard said no, but that he was in the audience at San Quentin in 1959: "I told him, 'You came in there, left, and my life changed.'"
"Johnny Cash once told me, 'Hag, you're the guy people think I am,'" Haggard says. He spent nearly half of his first 21 years "running away or behind bars," he says. "I would've become a lifetime criminal if music hadn't saved my ass."
By Haggard's estimate, he was locked up 17 times, in places like the California Youth Authority, the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys and the Preston School of Industry, one of the oldest and most infamous reform schools in the country. The institutions were brutal: He was beaten with a rake, made to run miles in boots that didn't fit and brutalized by older inmates. Haggard took pleasure in outwitting the sadistic guards, and he found a way to escape from every single place he was locked up. Asked what motivated him, he shrugs. "I don't like to be told what to do."
In 1966, Haggard had his first Number One song with Liz and Casey Anderson's "The Fugitive." The song was about a TV show popular at the time, but it hinted at Haggard"s story: "I raised a lot of Cain back in my younger days/While Mama used to pray my crops would fail/Now I'm a hunted fugitive with just two ways/Outrun the law or spend my life in jail." Though he sang about outlaws, Haggard was terrified to let people know about his own criminal past. "The last thing in the world I wanted to do," he says, "was walk up like David Allan Coe and say, 'Hey, I've been to prison, look at me.'"
Bob Wills relocated from Texas to California after World War II, and his live radio broadcasts from Bakersfield's Beardsley Ballroom made him a hero to transplanted Southerners. From the first time he heard Wills, Haggard wrote in his 1981 autobiography, Sing Me Back Home, "that beautiful fiddle… was piercing little holes right through my head."
Haggard modeled his own band, the Strangers, after the hillbilly-jazz sound of Bob Wills's Texas Playboys. He hired several of their members before and after Wills died in 1975.
The strangers are the longest-running, most exciting band in country music, a wiry, daredevil outfit that specializes in a swinging hybrid of country and jazz. Haggard formed the Strangers in 1965. Three of its members: drummer Biff Adam, steel-guitar player Norm Hamlet and horn man Don Markham have been in the group for more than 35 years.
One of Haggard's proudest achievements is his 1970 album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills). Haggard spent four months intensively learning to play fiddle, practicing Wills's solos all night on the tour bus. "He'd be listening over and over to those tapes," says Haggard's drummer, Biff Adam. "Sometimes we'd have to go back in the bunks and cover up our heads."
In 1969 "Okie from Muskogee" became Haggard's biggest hit and earned him entertainer of the year from the Country Music Association. Haggard was invited to play Pat Nixon's birthday party at the White House, which he struggled through with a raging hangover.
In 1972, he was granted an official pardon by California governor Ronald Reagan.
Merle and his buddy Willie Nelson recorded Pancho and Lefty, a laid-back album about boozing, chasing girls and skipping out on responsibilities to go fishing with a hint of the fallout to come. "We were living pretty hard in that time period," says Nelson. The album's finest track, a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," was cut after four in the morning. Haggard had already gone to bed, Nelson says, but they needed him for the final verse. "We went over to the condo, woke up ol' Merle and said, 'It's your turn.'"
"When Cash died," Haggard says, "I think a lot of faces turned to look at me and looked at Willie. We sort of moved up a notch."
Haggard met his current wife, Theresa, when her mother persuaded her to come see Haggard perform, even though she was more of a ZZ Top fan. After the show, Theresa met Haggard's guitarist, Clint Strong, and the two went back to Strong's room. Haggard asked Strong to go to the bus and get a guitar. "He said, 'I'll take her up to the room, and we'll meet you up there,'" Theresa says. When Strong returned with the guitar, Haggard wouldn't let him in. "There's bangin' on the door, and it's Clint," Theresa says. "And Merle says, 'Get the fuck out of here! She's my woman now. You don't know how to treat a woman. Get the hell out of here, or I'm going to fire your ass.' I went on a month tour with him, and we were pretty much together."
Theresa didn't believe she could have kids, so when she got pregnant in 1989 she says, "It was a blessing." They named their daughter Jenessa, the name came to Haggard in a dream, and moved off the houseboat to the ranch full time. "We got worried the baby might fall overboard," Theresa says. "So Merle fixed up a cabin at the end of the property, and we moved in after he brought me home from the hospital."
Three years later, Theresa gave birth to Benion, named after Benny Binion, the colorful, criminal owner of the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, whom Haggard says was like a father to him. The same day Benion was born, Haggard was served with papers at the hospital claiming he owed creditors $14 million. "Once again, I was paying a high price for cheap thrills and bad decisions," he wrote in My House of Memories. "And I was dunned at one of the most memorable moments in my life."