Merle Haggard biography
Country music star Merle Haggard was born in Bakersfield, California, on April 6, 1937. Originally a troubled youngster who served time in San Quentin prison, Haggard grew to become a country music legend. With 38 No. 1 hits and 250 original songs, Haggard remains one of the best-known and most covered artists in country music.
Famed country singer, guitarist and songwriter Merle Robert Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, California. The son of a railroad worker, Haggard grew up in Depression-era California. As a child, he was plagued by a respiratory condition, which frequently kept him out of school and confined to bed rest.
A rebellious teen, Haggard compiled a criminal record that included such offenses as truancy, passing phony checks, and grand theft auto. His escalating juvenile delinquency landed him in and out of reform facilities and county jails. When not serving time, Haggard pursued a love of music by playing guitar in local bars and clubs.
In March 1958, Merle Haggard was sent to San Quentin prison after being convicted for burglary and attempted escape from county jail. While serving a 2 1/2-year term, he played in the prison's country band and took high school equivalency courses. (Haggard was pardoned in 1972 by Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California.) Upon his parole in 1960, Haggard returned to Bakersfield, where he sang and played guitar in the honky-tonks of "Beer Can Hill," the hub of the city's burgeoning country music scene.
After gaining a loyal local following in his hometown, Haggard traveled to Las Vegas, where he began playing bass guitar for Wynn Stewart. In 1962, he signed with a small label called Tally Records, for whom he recorded five songs, including his debut single "Sing a Sad Song," which rose to No. 19 on the country charts. Haggard formed his own backing band, the Strangers, before signing with Capitol Records in 1965. Later that year, the band released their debut self-titled album. In 1967, their single, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," soared to the top of the country charts. Later that year, Haggard followed the song's runaway success with, "Branded Man," his first self-penned No. 1 song.
Ultimately, Haggard's streak of No. 1 singles during the 1960s culminated with what would become his signature song and his most controversial recording, "Okie from Muskogee." Released in 1969, the song became an anthem for middle Americans whose patriotism and traditional values were under attack from Vietnam War protestors and hippies. "Okie from Muskogee" crossed over to the pop charts and earned Haggard the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year Award in 1970.
Since then, Haggard has released close to 70 albums and 600 songs, 250 of which he has written himself. Among his most memorable albums were The Fightin' Side of Me (1970), Someday We'll Look Back (1971), If We Make It Through December (1974) and A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today (1977). In 1982, Haggard recorded a duet album with George Jones called A Taste of Yesterday's Wine, which yielded the chart toppers "Yesterday's Wine" and "C.C. Waterback." The following year, he collaborated with Willie Nelson to record the widely praised compilation Pancho & Lefty.
In addition to an impressive title track, Pancho & Lefty featured the touching ballads "It's My Lazy Day," "Half a Man," "Reason To Quit" and "All the Soft Places to Fall."
Haggard was elected to the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1977. In 1994, his wealth of artistic achievements, including 38 No. 1 hits, earned him induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In 2008, Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had surgery to remove the tumor and reflected on the situation as "the greatest test of my fortitude." After a speedy recovery, Haggard toured and wrote songs one of which was inspired by what President Barack Obama called "Hopes Are High," which he wrote two days before the inauguration.
Haggard was married to Leona Hobbs from 1956 to 1965, and to Buck Owens's ex-wife and fellow country singer Bonnie Owens from 1965 to 1975. Two more failed marriages followed—to backup singer Leona Williams and to Debbie Parrett. Haggard is currently married to Theresa Lane, whom he wed in 1993. He has three children from his first marriage to Hobbs and two children with Lane.