1 Merle Ronald Haggard, born on April 6, 1937, owed his dazzling career perhaps first and foremost to his older brother Lowell, who gave Merle, then 12, his used guitar as a gift. Haggard taught himself to play inspired by his favorite records, especially those of Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. And when he finally got those skills down, there was no stopping him.
Depending on one’s point of view, Haggard’s debut performance can be said to have taken place in Modesto at a bar named the Fun Center with his friend Bob Teague. Haggard, still a teen, was paid $5 per show — plus free beer.
But some will point to the night Merle saw Lefty Frizzell in concert. Merle got backstage at the Rainbow Garden ballroom and gave a few friends gathered there an impromptu Frizzell impersonation. Frizzell heard him and wanted to hear more. In fact he refused to sing unless Haggard went on stage to sing first. In the audience that night: Buck Owens and Bonnie Campbell, who would later marry each man (a decade apart). After seeing the audience’s reaction, Haggard decided to pursue a career in music. After quite a few bumps, he did.
And the legend was created.
2 Haggard was married five times. His second wife, Bonnie Campbell Owens, was a talented country singer in her own right.
In 1965 the two recorded the hit duet “Just Between the Two of Us,” and they got married later that year.
Owens helped care for Haggard's children from his first marriage, and he helped care for hers: Buddy and Michael Owens, the two eldest sons of her first husband, Buck Owens. And, as she emphasized in “The Bakersfield Sound: How a Generation of Displaced Okies Revolutionized American Music,” a full decade separated those two marriages. No funny business.
Bonnie also dedicated her time to Haggard’s career, touring with Merle’s band, The Strangers, as a backup vocalist.
The couple divorced in 1978, but the two remained friends. They were so close that Bonnie was the maid of honor for Haggard's third marriage.
She died in 2006.
3 His father died when he was just 9 years old, and Haggard, angry and hurt, began living a rebellious life of truancy and petty crime.
Haggard committed a number of minor offenses, including thefts and writing bad checks and was sent to a juvenile detention center multiple times.
He went to jail for trying to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse. After being transferred to San Quentin Prison after an escape attempt, he was banished to solitary confinement for having been caught drunk on prison brew.
After that, he straightened up. Haggard earned a high school equivalency diploma and kept a steady job in the prison. He played for the prison's country band and was released in 1960.
4 San Quentin played a big role in Haggard’s reclamation, in more than one way. He saw Johnny Cash perform one of his prison concerts there on New Year’s Day 1958. Haggard was 20 years old.
Within three years of the performance, he had recorded his first top 20 country single.
The two became close friends. Years later, Haggard told Popmatters.com about their relationship.
“He once said to me, ’You know, Haggard, you’re everything that people think I am.’ And one time I told him, I said, ’You know, you did the dumbest thing I‘ve ever heard you doin’.’ And he said, ’What was that?’ And I said, ’When you hired that piano player!’ I said, ’Johnny Cash with a piano player makes no sense at all.’ I said, ’What in the Hell do you need with a piano player?’
“And he took a long pause and looked at me and said to me, ’Haggard, you’re the only man in country music uglier than me.’”
Yep, sounds like a great friendship.
5 Haggard’s criminal record always bugged him, even though it created a distinctive persona that couldn’t have hurt record sales. Still, Haggard was happy to have been pardoned in 1972 by Ronald Reagan, who was at the time the governor of California, 12 years after his release from San Quentin.
In appreciation, Haggard performed for Reagan 10 years after receiving the pardon. By this time Ronnie was the president.
Said Haggard during the concert: “I hope the president will be as pleased with my performance today as I was with his pardon 10 years ago.”
The president, the first lady and 400 invited guests listened to the performance on bales of hay in a tin-roofed arena at the Sierra Grande Ranch in the Santa Ynez Mountains, reports The New York Times. Haggard performed ''Okie From Muskogee'' and ''Are the Good Times Really Over?''
The performance must have been a success because President Reagan asked for an encore. ''We hope that all our countrymen will take pride in an American cultural heritage that commands respect, rooted in the creativity that can only come from freedom,'' said Reagan.
And that’s actually the way he talked all the time.
6 Merle Haggard‘s 1968 classic “Mama Tried” was selected last month as one of 25 sound recordings added into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
David S. Mao, acting librarian of Congress, hand-selected each entry based on its unique “artistic, cultural and/or historical significance to American society.”
Haggard’s track is the only country selection on the list.
Mama would have been happy.
7 Haggard left quite an impression, commercially speaking, reaching the Top 10 on the Billboard Country Singles chart more than 70 times. He had 40 No.1 one hits and won just about every music award imaginable.
A few of his No. 1 singles: “Mama Tried” (1968), “Big City” (1981), “Branded Man” (1967), “If We Make it Through December” (1973), “Okie From Muskogee” (1969), “Workin’ Man Blues” (1969) and “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star” (1987). What, we didn’t list your favorite? Get in line; there were a ton.
Haggard released 54 studio albums as a solo act and 10 collaborative albums with other artists. He also had 11 live releases and five additional studio albums that featured his legendary band, the Strangers.
In 1994, Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 1997, the legend was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
8 The train boxcar home where Haggard grew up, in Oildale, was moved to the Kern County Museum in 2015.
Haggard’s father, James, bought the boxcar in 1935 for $500. James Haggard added a pop-out dining area, a wash house, a hand-poured concrete bathroom and a front step, and his mother planted fruit trees.
The family was not fazed by the lack of floor space. One time the Haggards hosted Thanksgiving dinner for 22 people. They had plenty to be thankful for.
Before the boxcar was moved to its new home at the museum, it had other renters and was greatly deteriorated. Haggard once wrote he was glad his parents were no longer alive to see what became of their “wood and stucco jewel box.”
An online campaign, “Help Save Hag’s Boxcar,” rescued the home for the museum. Renovations are ongoing. Here’s hoping it gets finished soon.
9 Haggard’s favorite duet partner? Bonnie Owens, no doubt. His most unexpected duet partner? Clint Eastwood, no doubt.
Eastwood, who directed and starred in the 1980 movie “Bronco Billy,” asked Haggard to record a duet called “Bar Room Buddies” for the soundtrack, and Haggard appeared as himself in the film.
The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart in 1980, becoming Haggard’s 25th career No. 1 hit.
All in a day’s work for a couple of legends.
10 Haggard’s resume is astounding, but we tried to come up with a list of his awards anyway. Tell us what we’re leaving out.
The Academy of Country Music, based in Los Angeles, bestowed upon him 19 awards including “Most Promising Male Vocalist,” “Best Vocal Group,” “Top Vocal Duo,” “Top Male Vocalist,” “Top Duo,” “Top Male Vocalist,” “Album of the Year,” “Song of the Year,” “Single of the Year,” “Entertainer of the Year,” “Pioneer Award,” “Triple Crown,” “Poet's Award” and the “Crystal Milestone Award.”
The Country Music Association, based in Nashville, awarded him “Album of the Year,” “Entertainer of the Year,” “Male Vocalist of the Year,” “Single of the Year,” “Album of the Year” and “Vocal Duo of the Year.”
Haggard also won three Grammy Awards. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and received Kennedy Center Honors in 2010.
Haggard died Wednesday with many songs undoubtedly still in his heart. Between hospital visits this year he’d texted close friends newly penned lyrics to half-finished songs. Who knows? There might have been more Grammys in those tender words.
Compiled by The Californian’s Elizabeth Sanchez.