Does any living musician possess as much blood-and-guts authenticity as country music pioneer Merle Haggard? Born in 1937 to parents who narrowly escaped the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, Merle was raised in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield, Calif. At age 9, he discovered his railroad-working father half-dead from a stroke, which set in motion a 15-year cycle of hitchhiking, train-hopping and detention — Merle was first arrested at age 11 and entered his first juvenile facility at age 13.
Between 1950 and 1960, Haggard worked as an oilman, truck driver, hay pitcher, cook and itinerant musician, landing in (and escaping from) jail more than 17 times before eventually getting shipped up to California’s notorious San Quentin Prison. During a three-year stay there, he spent time in solitary, ran gambling and moonshining rackets, and nearly got talked into escaping with an inmate who later shot a cop and was executed.
But two chance encounters with country music legends changed Haggard’s life: Around 1955, in between stints in the Preston School of Industry, he and a friend attended a Lefty Frizzell concert. After Frizzell heard the 18-year-old Haggard singing along to his tunes backstage, the honky-tonk star insisted the young’un open for him, giving Haggard his first taste of onstage adrenaline. And three years later, while serving time in San Quentin, Merle caught one of Johnny Cash’s early jailhouse performances and decided to finally get right with the musical gods. By the time he was released in 1960, he had earned his GED and held down a coveted spot as guitarist for the jail’s in-house band.
At age 23, Haggard finally gave country music a full-time go. He fell in with the Bakersfield Sound crew, which provided blue-collar contrast to the slick, rhinestone-studded Music Row aesthetic taking over Nashville. By 1965, when he married accomplished singer Bonnie Owens, ex-wife of Western swing master Buck Owens, Merle had perfected his bluesy, twangy drinking/rambling/hard-living MO. Early hits like 1966’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” 1967’s “Branded Man” and 1968’s “Sing Me Back Home” all pulled judiciously from Haggard’s checkered past, but they did so in a yearning, tenderly nostalgic way that, given the social and artistic upheavals of the day, felt far more wistful than dangerous.
Perhaps that’s why 1969’s “Okie From Muskogee” became such a massive hit. Released just months into Richard Nixon’s first term, when Vietnam protests and racial conflict were roiling the nation, Merle managed in two-and-a-half concise minutes to skewer drug-users, draft-dodgers, free lovers, long-haired, sandal-wearing hippies and political radicals. No song better extolled the mythical virtues of a buttoned-up, flag-waving “place where even squares can have a ball,” where “white lightning’s still the greatest thrill of all.”
Over the years, Haggard has always maintained that the song was inherently impressionistic. Perhaps it was told from his father’s point of view, perhaps a stinging slap at America’s uneducated masses; his later marijuana and cocaine addictions certainly provided ironic comeuppance. But “Okie From Muskogee” and the even more direct “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (“If you don’t like it, leave it/When you’re runnin’ down my country, man/You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me”) became de facto anthems of the era’s mostly white, mostly rural, mostly conservative so-called Silent Majority. In 1972, segregationist and then-governor of Alabama George Wallace courted Haggard’s endorsement for president; the same year, then-governor of California Ronald Reagan pardoned Haggard for all of his past crimes.
All told, between 1968 and 1976, Haggard logged 22 consecutive No. 1 hits, a streak rivaled by few American artists.
Haggard’s last No. 1 came in 1987, and 1989’s fiery “Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn,” written to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of flag-burning, represented the final nail in his major-label coffin. Alongside outlaw country brethren like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, however, Merle enjoyed a renaissance around the turn of the century. He earned a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 for the classic lament “Mama Tried,” released several critically acclaimed, stripped-down albums in the 2000s, accepted Kennedy Center Honors from President Obama in 2010, and even received an honorary doctorate degree from California State University-Bakersfield in 2013.
And somehow, at age 76, Merle Haggard is still relevant. In December, his name was announced along with Daft Punk, Kendrick Lamar and Pink as a 2014 Grammy Awards performer. Immediately after that Jan. 26 performance, the Hag will fly to Florida for six shows, with nearly 25 more across the country to follow. Surprised? You should be. In a 2005 interview with GQ, Merle sounded defeated: “I’m tired of the whole gig. … I’m a bit of a gambler and have a feel for odds. The odds are really against me.”
He was nearly proved right in 2008, when lung cancer dealt him a serious blow. Since then, he’s battled pneumonia, ulcers, diverticulitis and a host of other ailments. Yet the lure of the road — the timeless appeal of performing that great body of simple, honest, workingman classics — still beckons. In an April 2013 interview with DigitalJournal.com, Merle said, “If I lay off [music] … the next big event in my life will be death. That’s the way I’ve got it figured. … I think I’m gonna live longer, and maybe enjoy life more, if I work hard.”