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Merle Haggard

About Merle Haggard

Merle Ronald Haggard (6 April 1937 – 6 April 2016) was born in Oildale, California, little more than a railroad junction on the outskirts of Bakersfield. He became a singer-songwriter who is now a legend in country music. Often called the poet of the common man, he and his band helped create the “Bakersfield Sound”, characterized by electric guitar and vocal harmony. The style is honky tonk minimalist, with an immediate and honest sound that isn’t heard in the polished, Nashville recordings.

His parents moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl days, and he was born in a converted railroad boxcar into abject poverty. His father died in 1945 when Merle was still a child, and that started his long line of trouble with the law. He started with truancy and runaway, and advanced to burglary and jail breaks. He finally found himself in San Quentin prison in 1958, but that was a blessing in disguise. Haggard was in the prison yard when Johnny Cash performed there in 1959, and with encouragement from his prison friends, he taught himself to play guitar. When he got out in 1960 he went back to Bakersfield and started playing covers in road-houses. He worked his way up to performing in small clubs in Las Vegas, where he got to brush shoulders with nationally known artists like Buck Owens, and that led to him meeting Johnny Cash. Cash was impressed and advised Haggard to write his own songs. “He said I should write what I know”, Haggard said, and to address his past directly in his songs. “I was bull-headed about my career. I didn’t want to talk about being in prison, but Cash said I should talk about it. That way the tabloids wouldn’t be able to. I said I didn’t want to do that and he said, ‘It’s just owning up to it.‘” Haggard took the advice and it became part of his legend.

Just a few of the songs that he is known for are “Okie from Muskogee”, “Cherokee Maiden”, “Mama Tried”“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”, “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “It’s All Going to Pot”.

Haggard released over two dozen albums in his career and had over 30 songs reach number one one the Billboard Country charts. He won four Grammys, six Country Music Association awards, been named to the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and won the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement. He influenced dozens of country artists and that Bakersfield sound is alive today in Outlaw Country music.

When asked what makes good country music, Hagard replied:

“I’ll tell you what the public likes more than anything, it’s the most rare commodity in the world – honesty.”