In an old boxcar converted into a house, Merle Haggard was born in Oildale, California on April 6, 1937. Growing up, Haggard developed a rebellious attitude after losing his father, Jim, to a stroke while Merle was only nine years old. Criminal activity became a normal way of life for Haggard who would be put into juvenile detention centers only to try to escape. Music became a positive outlet for Merle Haggard. He taught himself to play guitar at the age of 12, playing along to old records of Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills.
It wasn’t until a short stint locked up in San Quentin that completely shook Merle of his criminal ways. In need of money, Haggard was charged with robbery in Bakersfield, California. After attempting to escape from Bakersfield Jail, Haggard was transferred to San Quentin in 1957. A short time later in 1958, he attended a Johnny Cash concert. It was this concert that inspired Haggard to join the prison band and put focus into his music. “Rabbit”, a fellow inmate at San Quentin, recognized Haggard’s musical prowess and potential, and encouraged him to continue focusing on that career. And in 1960, Merle Haggard was released from San Quentin, right into the blossoming Bakersfield music scene.
Merle Haggard wound up playing bass for Wynn Stewart’s band in 1962. This opportunity led him to record his first songs, with “Sing a Sad Song” being released in 1964, reaching the top 20 on the charts. When his recording of “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” hit the top 10, Merle caught the attention of Capitol Records, who help Merle become the defining country singer we all know him to be. It was the Liz and Casey Anderson penned “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” that gave him his first number one single in 1967.
As Merle Haggard grew more comfortable in the spotlight, he opened up about his past life as a law-breaker and spending time in prison. He was no longer afraid that such details would result in negative reactions and drive fans away from his music. “Branded Man”, “Sing Me Back Home”, and “Mama Tried” were songs Merle wrote based on his past, and all three reached number one in the late 1960s.
In the midst of the Vietnam War and the protests in America, Merle Haggard became a political icon for the conservative right, for the people who hated the war protestors. What started off as a joke, “Okie from Muskogee” became an anthem for the way things used to be. Quickly followed by the rambunctious “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” Merle Haggard epitomized the American pride in country music, which is an attitude that hasn’t subsided to this day.
But it’s not just the political attitude that made Merle Haggard a country music icon. Merle Haggard wrote and recorded songs true to himself. Along with Buck Owens and others, Merle Haggard helped lead the Bakersfield Sound of country music into popularity; a sound developed in retaliation to the Nashville Sound. It was a music scene and style for those wanting freedom from the control of the establishment. From the late 60s through most of the 80s, Merle Haggard recorded 38 songs that made it to number one on the country charts, but that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what made Merle Haggard great.
Haggard persevered through hard times and made a name for himself without compromise. His music has influenced countless singers and songwriters to this day. And Merle Haggard never wavered or stopped recording until the very end. Just last year, Haggard, along with his long time friend Willie Nelson, recorded an album 14 new recordings, Django and Jimmie. It wasn’t until late last year that Merle had to start canceling concert dates due to coming down with pneumonia. It was that sickness that ultimately caused his death yesterday, April 6, 2016.
Merle Haggard was a man whose life was saved by his love for music. A man forgiven for his sins and praised for his accomplishments thereafter. An iconic singer and songwriter who valued sincerity in his music. Country music’s notoriety would not be the same if it weren’t for Merle Haggard. May he rest in peace, and may his music live forever.
Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases
- Hayes Carll‘s Lovers and Leavers will be released tomorrow.
- Next week on April 15, Sturgill Simpson‘s A Sailor’s Guide To Earth will be released.
- Del McCoury‘s Del and Woody will also be released on the 15th.
- Michael Ray announced his new single will be “Think A Little Less.”
- Jason Aldean‘s new single is called “Lights Come On.” Josh has a review on this coming soon.
Throwback Thursday Song
Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” I’ll let the lyrics speak for themselves.
Non-Country Suggestion of the Week
Gareth Emery’s 100 Reasons to Live English EDM DJ Gareth Emery released a new album at the beginning of the month. I’m not a big fan of EDM music, but while exploring new releases, I checked out this album and found myself enjoying the production of the dance tunes. If you don’t listen to EDM, then my suggestion is to go listen to Merle Haggard.
Tweet of the Week
— Ben Haggard (@BenHaggardMusic) April 6, 2016
A review calling out Jason Aldean for his terrible music. I like this one!