Personalities | Merle Haggard | West Coast Scene | Country

In the Bakersfield family tree, the likes of Bill Woods and Wynn Stewart set the stage, Buck Owens put the town on the map, and Merle Haggard was the heir apparent. ‘The Hag’, as he is often known, also had the distinction of actually being born in Bakersfield, on 6 April 1937.

His parents, James and Flossie Haggard, were victims of the Depression and moved to California from Oklahoma in search of the better life, while their young son – after the death of his father – frequently saw the inside of juvenile homes and prisons as he paid the price for his lawless aggression.

Misspent Youth

At the same time, Merle Haggard possessed a deep passion for country music, and started playing guitar at the age of 12, encouraged by the recordings of his idols Bob Wills, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. Frizzell in particular offered encouragement and welcomed Haggard to his stage. The positive audience reaction persuaded Haggard to think seriously about a music career but, as his criminal records increased, he eventually served time in San Quentin. It was there that he realized that he could not continue his life as it was and, after a period of rehabilitation, he was granted parole in 1960.

Initially he returned to his earlier, pre-prison occupation of digging ditches, but soon found that the income from playing local venues was enough to make ends meet. His situation was made even more secure when he joined Wynn Stewart’s band as bassist in 1962. Around the same time, he came to the attention of Fuzzy Owen, who offered him a deal on Tally Records, a small label that he co-owned with his cousin Louis Talley. Wynn Stewart provided the right ingredient, ‘Sing A Sad Song’ (1963), and Haggard debuted in the nation’s Top 20 with this, his first single. Three releases later he went Top 10 with a Liz Anderson song ‘(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers’ (1965) and Capitol Records bought up the Tally contract.

Once on the major label, Hag’s songwriting came to the fore and, by late 1966, he was riding towards his first No. 1 with ‘The Fugitive’, a reflection of past bad times, and a career that would realize over 100 chart records, flirtations with other labels after Capitol (to which he returned in 2005), and the establishment of iconic status furthered by induction into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1994.

The Secret Of Hag’s Success

Merle Haggard’s great success was dependent upon a number of factors, primarily his interest in music derived from a melting-pot of sources and distinctive vocal skills reflective of artists such as Frizzell and Stewart. His album catalogue is highly original and includes concept tributes to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, Dixieland jazz and religion. He was acknowledged as a ‘poet of the common people’, with his songs telling of man’s toil, trials and tribulations, with equal adroitness displayed in his political comments, representing the...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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