If outlaw country had a Mount Rushmore, Merle Haggard’s face would be on it. There’s no question about that. Haggard didn’t just write and record some of the biggest tracks in the sub-genre’s history. He lived the life. He was born in a boxcar. Hag did some time in prison and escaped multiple times. He was a real-life outlaw.
More importantly, Merle Haggard embodied the true meaning of outlaw country. Waylon Jennings said that “outlaw” didn’t mean being a criminal. Instead, it meant sticking up for your beliefs. Outlaw country was, and is, all about artistic integrity and authenticity. Those two things and a massive helping of talent are what made Merle the icon that he is. His legacy will live on for generations even though he left this world in 2016.
Today is the anniversary of Merle Haggard’s death as well as his birthday. Hag would have turned 84 today. So, to celebrate the legacy of an outlaw country icon, we’re looking back at some of the best moments of his career. However, we’re not going to just dredge through all of his big hits and releases. Instead, we’re going to look at some of the important moments that prove that Merle was cut from a different cloth.
Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash
Merle Haggard was in and out of different correctional institutions from the time he was eleven years old. Finally, at the age of 18, he caught a burglary charge. The judge handed Hag fifteen years and sent him to San Quentin.
There’s a difference between an “inmate” and a “convict.” The former is someone who is incarcerated and does their best to follow the rules. They keep their eyes on the door and strive to reform. Convicts, on the other hand, are the folks who continue their criminal activity behind bars. Merle Haggard was a convict through and through. This landed him in the hole at San Quentin. His time in solitary let him rethink his life. He knew he needed to change.
After leaving the hole, Merle saw a concert that changed his life. On New Year’s Day 1958, Haggard and the rest of the inmates at the notorious lockup gathered to watch Johnny Cash perform his first prison concert. After seeing that show, Merle Haggard was hooked. He loved Cash’s music. Maybe more than the music Hag loved Cash’s attitude. He joined the prison’s country band. Also, Hag earned his GED and worked to better himself. As a result, he only did two years on the fifteen he was given. He walked out of the gates in 1960 and never looked back.
Once on the streets, Merle Haggard continued working toward a music career. Obviously, that worked out for him.
Haggard Meets Cash
Merle Haggard told Vanity Fair that he met Johnny Cash in Chicago in 1963. They were doing the same TV show. Before he was scheduled to go on, Hag had to visit the men’s room. After doing his business, he heard a deep voice behind him saying, “Haggerty, you ever do anything like this?” Merle turned around and there stood the man who inspired him to start his career in music. He was offering Haggard a Dexedrine which was a strong stimulant. From there, the two became friends. They performed and recorded together as well.
Johnny Cash often told him, “Merle, you’re everything that people think I am.”
Merle Haggard’s Country Roots
We’ve covered Merle Haggard’s authentic outlaw roots. Now, let’s look at the country side of things. Merle might have risen to prominence relatively quickly. However, he wasn’t just some Johnny-come-lately who didn’t know his roots. He proved that he knew what was what with two tribute albums that he released in 1969 and 1970. Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers and A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, a tribute to Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing and one of the originators of the Bakersfield Sound.
If you’ve never heard of either one of those men, don’t feel too bad. They aren’t incredibly popular anymore. However, they are two of the most important men in country music.
Jimmie Rodgers is widely regarded as the Father of Country Music. He was one of the first people to cut a country album. Also, he was the first person to sell a million copies of a single. That single was “Blue Yodel #1.” which dropped in 1928.
Bob Wills was an incredibly influential figure in country music. First, he and his band The Texas Playboys pretty much invented western swing. This development influenced artists like George Strait, Willie Nelson, and just about anyone else who has released “neotraditional” country music in the last three or four decades. Then, Wills had a hand in developing the Bakersfield sound. This was the country music that came from California. People like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard exemplify the Bakersfield sound.
So, Merle Haggard was a real-life outlaw and he knew his stuff when it came to country music.
The Hag Spoke His Mind
Merle Haggard didn’t pull punches. Earlier in this article, I mentioned he embodied the spirit of outlaw country in that way. Whether it was in his music or in conversation, Hag said what was on his mind.
For instance, Rick Blackburn, the head of CBS records gave him hell over the song “Kern River.” The track ended up being a chart-topper. However, Blackburn didn’t like the song and didn’t want Merle Haggard to cut it. Blackburn was also the man who cut Johnny Cash from the label. So, Haggard wasn’t too fond of him, to begin with. Finally, after hearing about how much Rick hated “Kern River,” one too many times, Hag was fed up. He rounded on Blackburn and said, “Who do you think you are? You’re the son-of-a-b—h that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-b—h I’ve ever met.”
Merle Haggard also spoke his mind in song. Some of his biggest hits are politically charged. For instance, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Okie from Muskogee,” and “I’m a White Boy,” are all working-class conservative anthems. When he penned “Me and the Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn,” his label refused to release it. Haggard felt strongly about the song which was about how wrong it is to burn the flag. So, he bought himself out of his contract just so he could press the song. Then, he gave all the money he made from it to the Disabled American Veterans.
Merle Haggard’s Collection of Hit Songs
Merle Haggard had a collection of number-one singles to rival some of the biggest names in the business. Over his fifty-three-year-long career, Hag put 38 songs at the top of the country singles chart. Among those are some of the biggest hits in country music history. They include greats like “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “Branded Man,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Pancho and Lefty,” “Yesterday’s Wine,” and, of course, “Mama Tried.”
Merle Haggard passed away on his birthday five years ago. However, his presence can still be felt throughout the genre. I’m going to close this one out with my personal favorite from his collection, “Mama Tried,” give it a listen. There’s never a wrong time to crank some good tunes.