Branded Man. Outlaw. Okie. Poet. The Working Man. Hag.
Merle Haggard defies labels. But he has been tagged with many. Kris Kristofferson namechecks him in the superb song “Wild American,” a tribute to people who show courage, conviction and individualism against the odds.
Haggard certainly has done that.
As a child, Haggard endured losing his father to sudden illness and as a teenager fell into a life of petty crime that landed him in prison doing hard time. As an inmate, Haggard sat in the audience for a Johnny Cash performance inside San Quentin. Seeing Cash turned him around and set Haggard on a musical path upon his prison release.
After a career spanning six decades and counting, Haggard is a musical legend feted with many awards and accolades. He is so much more than the “Okie From Muskogee” depicted in his hit song from the 1960s.
To help make my point, here are a few lesser-know facts about Haggard’s iconic life and music:
Haggard has been granted pardons by two California governors.
In 1972 then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes. More than 30 years later, Haggard received a less-publicized pardon by Arnold Schwarzenegger, another actor-turned-California-governor.
Haggard told The Washington Post that his 2006 pardon was a result of a confrontation with two trespassing hunters who fired shots toward Haggard’s California ranch house. Haggard’s wife, Teresa, grabbed a gun and – with a warning blast – scared away the hunters. Police investigated. And Haggard got in trouble with the law because, despite his pardon from Reagan, he was not allowed to own a gun because of his past criminal history.
Some of the Dust Bowl-era Haggard family heirlooms are preserved at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
In 1935, a fire destroyed the family barn, livestock, and equipment in Oklahoma. So, Merle Haggard’s proud and determined parents, James and Flossie Haggard, loaded up their possessions in a 1926 Chevy pulling a homemade trail and joined the great Dust Bowl migration west.
Among the family items were an oil lamp, a sewing machine, and a camera that Flossie Haggard used to document the family’s journey from Oklahoma to California along Route 66.
In 2003, Haggard donated the family items to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as part of a Great Depression-era America on the Move exhibition.
Haggard’s boyhood home was a converted boxcar.
When the Haggard family made it to Bakersfield in California’s Central Valley, they found a plot of land with a Santa Fe refrigerator rail car on it. The landlord offered the family nine months free rent if they were wiling to convert the boxcar into a livable home. So James Haggard cut out spaces for windows and doors and installed plumbing to make it livable.
“We took advantage of the offer and … added little improvement until it was a cozy little home,” said Flossie, according to a Smithsonian archive.
During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Haggard wrote a brooding love song about an interracial romance.
In the 1960’s Haggard emerged as an artistic counterweight to the anti-establishment movement in America. Songs like “The Fighting Side of Me” and “Okie From Muskogee” became semi-official anthems for Richard Nixon and his “silent majority” of conservatives who were appalled and fearful because young people and civil rights leaders were shaking things up in American society.
But Haggard blew the minds of many of his conservative country music fans when he released “Irma Jackson” in 1972. The song mourned a romance forbidden because “there is no way that the world will understand that love is colorblind.” Haggard had written the song years earlier, but executives at Capitol Records originally balked at releasing it because it was the 1960s and talk of interracial lovers was controversial, especially for a country music singer.
Nixon was a fan, but so too were The Grateful Dead and Dylan.
The Beatles were big fans of another legendary Bakersfield Sound act, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos. While Beatlemania was sweeping America, The Fab Four were eagerly awaiting the next new record from Owens and his band on Capitol Records.
Merle Haggard had his own impact on rock stars.
Keith Richards cites Haggard’s music as an influence, going back as far as the Rolling Stone’s 1968 album Beggars Banquet.
The Grateful Dead’s 1970 album Workman’s Dead was a tribute to the twangy, barroom sound of Haggard and his band the Strangers. At live shows, Dead Heads frequently danced to Haggard hits, including the San Quentin Prison song “Momma Tried,” which remained on the Dead playlist for decades.
After inviting Haggard to tour with him, Bob Dylan gave a nod to Haggard with the song “Workingman’s Blues #2” on Dylan’s 2006 Grammy-winning album Modern Times.
Haggard has his own list of musical heroes, none bigger than “The Singing Brakeman.”
Throughout his long career, Haggard has again and again paid homage to his musical hero Jimmie Rodgers.
Haggard’s 1969 tribute album Same Train, A Different Time played a significant role in introducing a new generation of musicians and fans to the greatness of the Rodgers style and songbook.
That love for Jimmie Rodgers was once again on display when Haggard teamed up with his old buddy Willie Nelson in 2015 for the hit album Django & Jimmie. The title reflected the influences that Rodgers and jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt have had on Nelson and Haggard.
Merle Haggard and Woody Guthrie also are kindred spirits.
Haggard has tapped the deepest roots of American music, from Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys to Lefty Frizzell and Bing Crosby.
But Haggard has another kindred spirit among musical icons: Woody Guthrie.
Like Guthrie, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression profoundly shaped Haggard’s life and music. Both Haggard and Guthrie trace their family roots back to Oklahoma and both used their music to explore the plight of the working poor.
With songs like “Tulare Dust” and “They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down” Haggard – like Guthrie – captured in simple lyric and melody the same sentiments reflected in the prose of John Steinbeck about the struggles of farm workers.