Merle Haggard: Firsts to Know

by Jim Casey

Merle Haggard is usually one of the first names listed when discussing the greatest country music stars of all time. We won’t argue with that. We can’t argue with that. The Hag was in a leagued of his own.

In honor of Merle’s first-rate career, we’ve got 10 Firsts to Know about the “Poet of the Common Man.”

1. First Home

Merle Haggard’s childhood home was a train boxcar that his father, Jim Haggard, remodeled. Located in Oildale, Calif., Merle’s dad bought the home for $500 in 1935, two years before Merle was born on April 6, 1937. A preservationist group raised enough money to move the boxcar to the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield, where it was restored for display in 2017.

2. First Guitar

When Merle was around 12 years old, his older brother, Lowell, who was 14 years older, gave him a Bronson guitar. Merle taught himself to play so well that when he was 16 he sat down next to his idol Lefty Frizzell backstage at a show and sang a couple of Jimmie Rodgers’ songs. Lefty was impressed enough to put Merle on stage that night with his personal guitar.

3. First Hit

In and out of juvenile detention facilities since the age of nine, Merle, 20, landed himself in San Quentin Penitentiary in 1958. A seven-day stretch in solitary confinement—for making prison brew—helped motivate Merle to turn his life around. Of course, Merle also cited Johnny Cash’s San Quentin performance on New Year’s Day 1959 as motivation to pursue country music. Merle did a stretch of almost three years before being paroled in 1960 (he was officially pardoned in 1972 by Ronald Reagan). After his release, Merle worked odd jobs during the day, and sang in Central Valley bars at night until “Sing a Sad Song” became his first Top 20 hit in 1964.

4. First Signature Song

Merle released “Mama Tried” in July 1968. Merle drew from his own life for this one: a wild, troublesome son that his mother had to try to cope with. The tune reached the top of the charts in August 1968 and stayed there for four weeks, becoming Merle’s biggest hit. “Mama Tried” was selected for the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999, and it was added to the National Recording Registry in 2016.

5. First Impressions

Merle never appeared on Saturday Night Live, but the Hag had impression skills.

“He was great at doing impressions,” wrote Dwight Yoakam in a Rolling Stone article after Haggard died in 2016. “His Buck Owens impersonation is hilarious. It’s eerily, spot-on Buck. Merle brought me on in Vegas that night and he did one of those for me. He moved his leg and danced a little bit like I’m known to do. And that’s something that I’ll remember forever.”

Watch Merle tackle impressions of Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Hank Snow, and Marty Robbins on a 1972 episode of The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

6. First No. 1

Merle’s first No. 1 single was 1966’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” However, Clint Eastwood’s first No. 1 single was a duet with Merle, “Bar Room Buddies.” The tune was featured on the soundtrack to Clint’s 1980 movie, Bronco Billy. In July 1980, “Bar Room Buddies” topped the country chart, becoming Clint’s first—and only—No. 1 single, while Merle scored his 25th of 38 No. 1s.

7. First Grammy

Over the course of his career, Merle earned 13 Grammy nominations, with two wins. He won his first Grammy in 1984 for Best Country Vocal Performance – Male for “That’s the Way Love Goes.” In 1998, Merle won his second Grammy for Best Country Collaboration With Vocals for “Same Ole Train.” In 2006, Merle was given the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

8. First Sip

No offense to that other Tennessee whiskey, but George Dickel Whisky got the approval of the Hag in a 1986 ad campaign. Makes ya thirsty just looking at it. I think I’ll just stay here and drink.

9. First on the List

In 2017, Rolling Stone compiled a list of the 100 Greatest Country Artists of All Time. Unsurprisingly, Merle topped the list at No. 1. Rolling Stone noted that Merle’s “songs were about bargains with the self, a search for something better, and the price paid for both: ‘I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,’ ‘Branded Man,’ ‘Mama Tried’ and ‘Sing Me Back Home’ drew from his prison experience, but the black marks they wrestled with signified universally; and barroom anthems like ‘Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down’ and ‘Swinging Doors’ distilled everyday pain into something deeply lyrical.”

10. First in Name Drops

Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Haggard is name-dropped in more country songs than the combination of “mama, trains, trucks, prison, and getting drunk.” The list includes “Long Time Gone” by the Dixie Chicks, “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)” by Brooks & Dunn, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” by George Jones, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” by David Allan Coe, “Raised On Country” by Chris Young, “Honky Tonk Saturday Night” by George Strait, “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams” by Hank Williams Jr., “He Won’t Ever Be Gone” by Willie Nelson, “When You Got Good Friends” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” by Eric Church, and many, many more.