The “Outlaw Country” label gets thrown around pretty often. Artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, Johnny Paycheck, and plenty more fall under that umbrella. However, very few of the artists whose music falls under that umbrella are actually outlaws. Merle Haggard, on the other hand, lived many of the songs he sang.
By the time Merle was 13, he was stealing, writing bad checks, and hopping freight trains. He spent many of his teenage nights in juvenile detention centers and reform schools. When he was just 20 years old, Haggard tried to rob a Bakersfield bar. That conviction landed him in Bakersfield Jail. His subsequent escape attempt would land him in California’s infamous San Quentin prison. There, Merle Haggard would see Johnny Cash perform, get inspired to do something with his life, and start down the long road of becoming a country music icon.
By the early 60s, things were going better for Merle Haggard. He had given up his outlaw ways and focused on his budding musical career. He released his first album, Strangers, in 1965. The next year, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” landed the Hag his first chart-topping single. The decade would see him rocket to success with songs like “Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Okie from Muskogee.” However, like he sang about in “Branded Man,” Haggard’s criminal record still haunted him.
That all changed on this day in 1972. 51 years ago today, California’s then-governor Ronald Reagan officially pardoned Merle Haggard for all of his crimes. Just like that, he was no longer a Branded Man.
However, it wasn’t just Merle’s rising star that helped him secure the pardon. There were legit legal reasons behind it. “They found that I was improperly convicted and had no representation because I was poor and things of that nature,” Merle Haggard said of the pardon after Reagan’s death in 2004.
The Importance of Merle Haggard’s Pardon
Receiving that pardon didn’t just lift a weight off Merle Haggard’s mind. It also made his professional life much easier.
“Well, you can imagine yourself, you got this tail hanging on you, and suddenly you don’t have it anymore,” Haggard explained. “It’s just wonderful to not have to walk up and say, ‘Pardon me, before I do this, I want to tell you that I’m an ex-convict.’ You have to do that with any sort of legal transaction, while leaving the country, with anything of that nature.”
About Reagan choosing to wipe his slate clean, Merle Haggard said, “He didn’t have to do that. He could have just snubbed his nose and went on to lunch.”
A Full-Circle Moment
Life went on for both Reagan and Haggard after the pardon. Merle Haggard went on to become a household name and a country icon. Ronald Reagan went on to become the President of the United States.
In 1982, then-President Ronald Reagan held a series of “In Performance at the White House” recitals. According to the New York Times, the recitals were meant to “promote young American artists by having established performers introduce a protégé.”
That night, Mark O’Connor a 20-year-old three-time Grand National Fiddle Champion, joined Merle Haggard on stage.
Reagan summed up the spirit of the concert series saying, “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.”
Without the freedom that then-Governor Reagan gave Merle Haggard with his full pardon, this night probably wouldn’t have been possible. So, maybe, his remarks about the event were more on-target than many realized.
“I hope the President will be as pleased with my performance today as I was with his pardon 10 years ago,” Haggard said before the concert.