On This Day: Merle Haggard’s Prison Sentence Ends After Nearly 3 Years in 1963

by Emily Morgan

The outlaw spirit of Merle Haggard’s music wasn’t something he made up; he lived it.

On this day, 64 years ago, Haggard would say goodbye to his life of crime and get serious about music when the state of California released him from prison.

Beginning from a young age, Merle Haggard embodied the true spirit of outlaw country. His family moved to California during the Great Depression, where they lived in a converted boxcar. His father worked for the railroads but tragically died when Haggard was just eight years old.

When he was 12-years-old, Haggard got bit by the music bug when his older brother passed down his used guitar to Haggard.

He picked it up quickly, but his father’s death led to Haggards’s life of crime. Soon received the title of a juvenile delinquent.

He was in and out of detention facilities throughout his youth, running away from home, hitchhiking, and hopping trains. 

Yet Haggard would begin to craft his quintessential, iconic sound after finding himself in quite the unfortunate circumstances.

Merle Haggard: Escape Artist

In 1957, Merle Haggard became a resident of California’s infamous San Quentin Prison after being found guilty of burglary.

During his time in prison, 18-year-old Haggard had forged a reputation as an escape artist. He attempted to escape so many times that he wasn’t allowed out of his cell past 4 P.M, according to an interview with Dan Rather.

After spending stints in solitary confinement and having in-depth come-to-Jesus meetings with death row inmate Caryl Chessman, he changed his ways. He became a steady worker in the prison’s textile plant.

Another pivotal moment for Haggard’s life came in 1959 when Johnny Cash performed his first prison concert at San Quentin, where Haggard was an audience member.

Haggard often attributed Cash’s performance as the inspirationHaggard needed to pursue music.

Haggard later said of Cash, “He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards — he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.” 

Inspired, Merle Haggard joined the prison’s country music band and began crafting his songwriting skills.

The sate of California released Haggard on parole in 1963 after serving nearly three years.

In 1972, former president and California Governor at the time, Ronald Reagan, granted an unconditional pardon to Haggard.

Despite his turbulent upbringing and ex-con status, he became one of the best country music legends history has ever known.