Merle Haggard in concert in Athens, Georgia, in 2013
|Birth name||Merle Ronald Haggard|
|Also known as||Hag|
April 6, 1937|
Oildale, California, U.S.
|Died||April 6, 2016(aged 79)|
|Genres||Country, Western, outlaw country, Bakersfield sound|
|Occupation(s)||Songwriter, musician, guitarist, singer|
|Labels||Capitol, MCA, Epic, Curb, ANTI, Vanguard|
|Merle Haggard Signature Model Fender Telecaster|
Merle Ronald Haggard (April 6, 1937 - April 6, 2016) was an American country and Western songwriter, singer, guitarist, fiddler, and instrumentalist. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard and his band The Strangers helped create the Bakersfield sound, which is characterized by the unique twang of Fender Telecaster and the unique mix with the traditional country steel guitar sound, new vocal harmony styles in which the words are minimal, and a rough edge not heard on the more polished Nashville sound recordings of the same era.
By the 1970s, Haggard was aligned with the growing outlaw country movement, and has continued to release successful albums through the 1990s and into the 2000s. In 1994, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1997, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Early career
- 3 "Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me"
- 4 Later career
- 5 Comeback
- 6 Collaborations
- 7 Equipment
- 8 Personal life
- 9 Legacy
- 10 Discography
- 11 Number one hits
- 12 Awards
- 13 Sources
- 14 Footnotes
- 15 References
- 16 External links
Haggard's parents, Flossie Mae Harp and James Francis Haggard, moved to California from their home in Checotah, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression, after their barn burned in 1934. They settled with their children, Lowell and Lillian, in an apartment in Bakersfield, while James Francis Haggard started working for the Santa Fe Railroad. A woman who owned a boxcar, which was placed in Oildale, a nearby town north of Bakersfield, asked Haggard's father about the possibility of converting it into a house. He remodeled the boxcar, and soon after moved in, also purchasing the lot, where Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937. The property was eventually expanded by building a bathroom, a second bedroom, a kitchen and a breakfast nook in the adjacent lot.
His father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945, an event that deeply affected Haggard during his childhood, and the rest of his life. To support the family, his mother worked as a bookkeeper. His brother, Lowell, gave Haggard his used guitar as a gift when he was 12 years old. Haggard learned to play alone, with the records he had at home, influenced by Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. As his mother was absent due to work, Haggard became progressively rebellious. His mother sent him for a weekend to a juvenile detention center to change his attitude, which worsened.
Haggard committed a number of minor offences, such as thefts and writing bad checks. He was sent to a juvenile detention center for shoplifting in 1950. When he was 14, Haggard ran away to Texas with his friend Bob Teague. He rode freight trains and hitchhiked throughout the state. When he returned the same year, he and his friend were arrested for robbery. Haggard and Teague were released when the real robbers were found. Haggard was later sent to the juvenile detention center, from which he and his friend escaped again to Modesto, California. He worked a series of laborer jobs, including driving a potato truck, being a short order cook, a hay pitcher, and an oil well shooter. His debut performance was with Teague in a Modesto bar named "Fun Center," being paid US$5, with free beer. He returned to Bakersfield in 1951, and was again arrested for truancy and petty larceny and sent to a juvenile detention center. After another escape, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security installation. He was released 15 months later, but was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt. After his release, Haggard and Teague saw Lefty Frizzell in concert. After hearing Haggard sing along to his songs backstage, Frizzell refused to sing unless Haggard would be allowed to sing first. He sang songs that were well received by the audience. Due to the positive reception, Haggard decided to pursue a career in music. While working as a farmhand or in oil fields, he played in nightclubs. He eventually landed a spot on the local television show Chuck Wagon, in 1956.
Married and plagued by financial issues, he was arrested in 1957 shortly after he tried to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse. He was sent to Bakersfield Jail, and was later transferred after an escape attempt to San Quentin Prison, on February 21, 1958. While in prison, Haggard discovered that his wife was expecting a child from another man, which pressed him psychologically. He was fired from a series of prison jobs, and planned to escape along with another inmate nicknamed "Rabbit". Haggard was convinced not to escape by fellow inmates. Haggard started to run a gambling and brewing racket with his cellmate. After he was caught drunk, he was sent for a week to solitary confinement where he encountered Caryl Chessman, an author and death row inmate. Meanwhile, "Rabbit" had successfully escaped, only to shoot a police officer and return to San Quentin for execution. Chessman's predicament, along with the execution of "Rabbit," inspired Haggard to turn his life around. Haggard soon earned a high school equivalency diploma and kept a steady job in the prison's textile plant, while also playing for the prison's country music band, attributing a 1958 performance by Johnny Cash at the prison as his main inspiration to join it. Upon his release in 1960, Haggard said it took about four months to get used to being out of the penitentiary and that, at times, he actually wanted to go back in. He said it was the loneliest he had ever felt.
Upon his release, Haggard started digging ditches and wiring houses for his brother. Soon he was performing again, and later began recording with Tally Records. The Bakersfield Sound was developing in the area as a reaction against the over-produced honky tonk of the Nashville Sound. Haggard's first song was "Skid Row". In 1962, Haggard wound up performing at a Wynn Stewart show in Las Vegas and heard Wynn's "Sing a Sad Song". He asked for permission to record it, and the resulting single was a national hit in 1964. The following year he had his first national top ten record with "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers", written by Liz Anderson (mother of country singer Lynn Anderson) and his career was off and running. In his 1981 autobiography Merle Haggard: Sing Me Back Home, Haggard recalls having been talked into visiting Anderson—a woman he didn't know—at her house to hear her sing some songs she had written. "If there was anything I didn't wanna do, it was sit around some danged woman's house and listen to her cute little songs. But I went anyway. She was a pleasant enough lady, pretty, with a nice smile, but I was all set to be bored to death, even more so when she got out a whole bunch of songs and went over to an old pump organ...There they were. My God, one hit right after another. There must have been four or five number one songs there..." In 1966, Haggard recorded his first number-one song "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive", also written by Liz Anderson, which Haggard acknowledges in his autobiography remains his most popular number with audiences." Haggard felt a connection to the song immediately and when it was released it became his first number one country hit. When Anderson played the song for Haggard, she was unaware about his prison stretch. "I guess I didn't realize how much the experience at San Quentin did to him, 'cause he never talked about it all that much," Bonnie Owens, Haggard's backup singer and then-wife, is quoted by music journalist Daniel Cooper in the liner notes to the 1994 retrospective Down Every Road. "I could tell he was in a dark mood...and I said, 'Is everything okay?' And he said, 'I'm really scared.' And I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Cause I'm afraid someday I'm gonna be out there...and there's gonna be some convict...some prisoner that was in there the same time I was in, stand up - and they're gonna be about the third row down - and say, 'What do you think you're doing, 45200?'" Cooper notes that the news had little effect on Haggard's career: "It's unclear when or where Merle first acknowledged to the public that his prison songs were rooted in personal history, for to his credit, he doesn't seem to have made some big splash announcement. In a May 1967 profile in Music City News, his prison record is never mentioned. But in July 1968, in the very same publication, it's spoken of as if it were common knowledge."
The 1966 album Branded Man kicked off an incredible artistic run for Haggard; in 2013 Haggard biographer David Cantwell states, "The immediate successors to I'm a Lonesome Fugitive - Branded Man in 1967 and, in '68, Sing Me Back Home and The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde - were among the finest albums of their respective years." Haggard's new recordings largely centered around Roy Nichols's Telecaster, Ralph Mooney's steel guitar, and the harmony vocals provided by Bonnie Owens. At the time of Haggard's first top-ten hit "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" in 1965, Owens was actually the better known performer, a fixture on the Bakersfield club scene who had recorded and appeared on television. Bonnie, who had been married to Buck Owens, won the new Academy of Country Music's first ever award for Female Vocalist after her 1965 debut album, Don't Take Advantage of Me, hit the top five on the country albums chart. However, there were no more hit singles, and although Owens recorded six solo albums on Capitol between 1965 and 1970, she became mainly known for her background harmonies on Haggard hits like "Sing Me Back Home" and "Branded Man." Producer Ken Nelson took a hands-off approach to producing Haggard. In the episode of American Masters dedicated to him, Haggard remembers: "The producer I had at that time, Ken Nelson, was an exception to the rule. He called me 'Mr. Haggard' and I was a little twenty-four, twenty-five year old punk from Oildale...He gave me complete responsibility. I think if he'd jumped in and said, 'Oh, you can't do that,' it would've destroyed me." In the documentary series Lost Highway, Nelson recalls, "When I first started recording Merle, I became so enamored with his singing that I would forget what else was going on, and I suddenly realized, 'Wait a minute, there's musicians here you've got to worry about!' But his songs - he was a great writer." Towards the end of the decade, Haggard went on a songwriting tear, composing several #1 hits as "Mama Tried," "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde," "Hungry Eyes," and "Sing Me Back Home." Daniel Cooper calls "Sing Me Back Home," "a ballad that works on so many different levels of the soul it defies one's every attempt to analyze it." In a 1977 interview in Billboard with Bob Eubanks, Haggard reflected, "Even though the crime was brutal and the guy was an incorrigible criminal, it's a feeling you never forget when you see someone you know make that last walk. They bring him through the yard, and there's a guard in front and a guard behind - that's how you know a death prisoner. They brought Rabbit out...taking him to see the Father,...prior to his execution. That was a strong picture that was left in my mind." In 1968, Haggard's first tribute LP Same Train, Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, was released to acclaim.
"Okie from Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me"
"Okie From Muskogee", 1969's apparent political statement, was, according to some Merle Haggard interviews decades later, actually written as a humorous character portrait. In one such interview, Haggard called the song a "documentation of the uneducated that lived in America at the time."[better source needed] However, he said later on the Bob Edwards Show that "I wrote it when I recently got out of the joint. I knew what it was like to lose my freedom, and I was getting really mad at these protesters. They didn't know anything more about the war in Vietnam than I did. I thought how my dad, who was from Oklahoma, would have felt. I felt I knew how those boys fighting in Vietnam felt." In the country music documentary series Lost Highway, he elaborates: "My dad passed away when I was nine, and I don't know if you've ever thought about somebody you've lost and you say, 'I wonder what so-and-so would think about this?' I was drivin' on Interstate 40 and I saw a sign that said "19 Miles to Muskogee." Muskogee was always referred to in my childhood as 'back home.' So I saw that sign and my whole childhood flashed before my eyes and I thought, 'I wonder what dad would think about the youthful uprising that was occurring at the time, the Janis Joplins...I understood 'em, I got along with it, but what if he was to come alive at this moment? And I thought, what a way to describe the kind of people in America that are still sittin' in the center of the country sayin', 'What is goin' on on these campuses?'" In the American Masters episode about his life and career, however, a more defiant Haggard states that the song was more than a satire: "That's how I got into it with the hippies...I thought they were unqualified to judge America, and I thought they were lookin' down their noses at something that I cherished very much, and it pissed me off. And I thought, 'You sons of bitches, you've never been restricted away from this great, wonderful country, and yet here you are in the streets bitchin' about things, protesting about a war that they didn't know any more about than I did. They weren't over there fightin' that war anymore than I was." Haggard began performing the song in concert in the fall of 1969 and was astounded at the reaction it received. As David Cantwell notes in his 2013 book Merle Haggard: The Running Kind, "The Haggard camp knew they were on to something. Everywhere they went, every show, 'Okie' did more than prompt enthusiastic applause. There was an unanticipated adulation racing through the crowds now, standing ovations that went on and on and sometimes left the audience and the band-members alike teary-eyed. Merle had somehow stumbled upon a song that expressed previously inchoate fears, spoke out loud gripes and anxieties otherwise only whispered, and now people were using his song, were using him, to connect themselves to these larger concerns and to one another." The studio version, which is far mellower than the usually raucous concert versions, topped the charts in the fall of 1969, where it remained for a month, and also hit number 41 on the pop charts, becoming Haggard's all-time biggest hit (until his 1973 crossover Christmas smash "If We Make It Through December") and signature tune.
Haggard was beginning to attract attention from artists outside the country field, such as crooner Dean Martin, who recorded "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" for his album of the same name in 1969. In addition, the Gram Parsons incarnation of the Byrds had performed "Sing Me Back Home" on the Grand Ole Opry and had recorded Haggard's "Life in Prison" for their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo the same year. In 1969 the Grateful Dead began performing Haggard's tune "Mama Tried", which appeared on their 1971 eponymous live album. The song became a staple in their repertoire until the band's end in 1995. Singer-activist Joan Baez, whose political leanings could not be more different from those expressed in Haggard's above-referenced songs, nonetheless covered "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried" in 1969. The Everly Brothers also used both songs in their 1968 country-rock album Roots. In the original Rolling Stone review for Haggard's 1968 album Mama Tried, Andy Wickham wrote, "His songs romanticize the hardships and tragedies of America's transient proletarian and his success is resultant of his inherent ability to relate to his audience a commonplace experience with precisely the right emotional pitch...Merle Haggard looks the part and sounds the part because he is the part. He's great." However, his next single, 1970's "The Fightin' Side of Me", was so unapologetically right wing that it left no doubt as to where Haggard stood politically. It became his fourth consecutive #1 country hit and also made an appearance on the pop chart, but any ideas that Haggard was a closeted liberal sympathizer were irretrievably squashed. In the song, Haggard allows that he doesn't mind the counterculture "switchin' sides and standin' up for what they believe in" but resolutely declares, "If you don't love it, leave it!" In May 1970, Haggard explained to John Grissom of Rolling Stone, "I don't like their views on life, their filth, their visible self-disrespect, y'know. They don't give a shit what they look like or what they smell like...What do they have to offer humanity?" Ironically, Haggard had wanted to follow "Okie from Muskogee" with "Irma Jackson," a song that dealt head-on with an interracial romance between a white man and an African-American woman. His producer Ken Nelson discouraged him from releasing it as a single. As Jonathan Bernstein recounts in his online Rolling Stone article "Merle Haggard Reluctantly Unveils 'The Fightin' Side of Me'", "Hoping to distance himself from the harshly right-wing image he had accrued in the wake of the hippie-bashing "Muskogee," Haggard wanted to take a different direction and release "Irma Jackson" as his next single... When the Bakersfield, California native brought the song to his record label, executives were reportedly appalled. In the wake of 'Okie,' Capitol Records was not interested in complicating Haggard's conservative, blue-collar image." After "The Fightin' Side of Me" was released instead, Haggard later commented to the Wall Street Journal, "People are narrow-minded. Down South they might have called me a nigger lover.". In an interview in 2001, Haggard stated that Nelson, who was also head of the country division at Capitol at the time, never interfered with his music but "this one time he came out and said, 'Merle...I don't believe the world is ready for this yet'...And he might have been right. I might've canceled out where I was headed in my career.".
"Okie From Muskogee", "The Fightin' Side of Me", and "I Wonder If They Think of Me" were hailed as anthems of the Silent Majority and presaged a trend in patriotic songs that would reappear years later with Charlie Daniels' "In America", Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA", and others. Haggard's next LP was A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, dedicated to Bob Wills, which helped spark a permanent revival and expanded audience for western swing. By this point, Haggard was one of the most famous country singers in the world, having enjoyed an immensely successful artistic and commercial run with Capitol accumulating twenty-four #1 country singles since 1966. On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, shortly after "Carolyn" became another number one country hit, then-California governor Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes. In the fall of 1972, "Let Me Tell You about A Song," the first TV special starring Merle Haggard, was nationally syndicated by Capital Cities TV Productions. It was a semi-autobiographical, musical profile of Haggard, akin to the contemporary "Behind The Music," produced and directed by Michael Davis. The 1973 recession anthem "If We Make It Through December" furthered Haggard's status as a champion of the working class. "If We Make It Through December" turned out to be Haggard's last pop hit. Haggard appeared on the cover of TIME on May 6, 1974. He also wrote and performed the theme song to the television series Movin' On, which in 1975 gave him another number one country hit. During the early to mid-1970s, Haggard's chart domination continued with songs like "Someday We'll Look Back", "Grandma Harp", "Always Wanting You", and "The Roots of My Raising". Between 1973 and 1976, Haggard scored 9 consecutive #1 country hits. In 1977, he switched to MCA Records and began exploring the themes of depression, alcoholism, and middle age on albums like Serving 190 Proof and The Way I Am. Haggard sang a duet cover of Billy Burnette's What's A Little Love Between Friends with Lynda Carter in her 1980 television music special Lynda Carter: Encore! He also scored a #1 hit in 1980 with "Bar Room Buddies," a duet with movie star Clint Eastwood that appeared on the Bronco Billy soundtrack.
In 1981, Haggard published an autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. That same year, he alternately spoke and sang the ballad "The Man in the Mask". Written by Dean Pitchford (whose other output includes "Fame", "Footloose", "Sing", "Solid Gold", and the musical Carrie), this was the combined narration/theme from the movie The Legend of the Lone Ranger, a box-office flop. Haggard also jumped record labels again in 1981, moving to Epic and releasing one of his most critically acclaimed albums, Big City. Between 1981 and 1985, Haggard scored twelve Top 10 country hits, with nine of them reaching #1, including "My Favorite Memory," "Going Where the Lonely Go," "Someday When Things Are Good," and "Natural High." In addition, Haggard recorded two chart topping duets with George Jones ("Yesterdays' Wine" in 1982) and Willie Nelson ("Pancho and Lefty" in 1983). Nelson believed the 1983 Academy Award-winning film Tender Mercies, about the life of fictional singer Mac Sledge, was based on the life of Merle Haggard. Actor Robert Duvall and other filmmakers denied this and claimed the character was based on nobody in particular. Duvall, however, said he was a big fan of Haggard. He won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his 1984 remake of "That's The Way Love Goes." Haggard and third wife Leona Williams divorced in 1983 after five stormy years of marriage and the split, which took Haggard by surprise, served as a license to party for Haggard, who spent much of the next decade becoming mired in alcohol and drug problems. Haggard has often stated that he was in the stages of his own mid-life crisis, or "male menopause," around this time. In the documentary Learning to Live With Myself, the singer is quoted in an interview from around the time: "Things that you've enjoyed for years don't seem nearly as important, and you're at war with yourself as to what's happening. 'Why don't I like that anymore? Why do I like this now?' And finally, I think you actually go through a biological change, you just, you become another...Your body is getting ready to die and your mind doesn't agree." By the mid-eighties he was addicted to cocaine but managed to kick the habit. However, he was hampered by financial woes well into the 1990s as his presence on the charts continued to diminish as newer singers had begun to take over country music, and singers like George Strait and Randy Travis had taken over the charts. Haggard's last number one hit was "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star" from his smash album Chill Factor in 1988.
In 1989, Haggard recorded a song, "Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn", in response to the Supreme Court's decision to allow flag burning under the First Amendment. After CBS Records Nashville avoided releasing the song, Haggard bought his way out of the contract and signed with Curb Records, which was willing to release the song. Of the situation, Haggard commented, "I've never been a guy that can do what people told me...It's always been my nature to fight the system."
In 2000, Haggard made a comeback of sorts, signing with the independent record label Anti and releasing the spare If I Could Only Fly to critical acclaim. He followed it in 2001 with Roots, vol. 1, a collection of Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Hank Thompson covers, along with three Haggard originals. The album, recorded in Haggard's living room with no overdubs, featured Haggard's longtime bandmates The Strangers as well as Frizzell's original lead guitarist, Norman Stephens. In December 2004, Haggard spoke at length on Larry King Live about his incarceration as a young man and said it was "hell" and "the scariest experience of my life".
Haggard's number one hit single "Mama Tried" is featured in the 2003 film Radio with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Ed Harris as well as in Bryan Bertino's "The Strangers" with Liv Tyler. In addition, his song "Swingin' Doors" can be heard in the 2004 film Crash and his 1981 hit "Big City" is heard in Joel and Ethan Coen's 1996 film "Fargo" and in the 2008 Larry Bishop film "Hell Ride".
In October 2005, Haggard released his album Chicago Wind to mostly positive reviews. The album contained an anti-Iraq war song titled "America First," in which he laments the nation's economy and faltering infrastructure, applauds its soldiers, and sings, "Let's get out of Iraq, and get back on track." This follows from his 2003 release "Haggard Like Never Before" in which he includes a song, "That's The News". Haggard released a bluegrass album, The Bluegrass Sessions, on October 2, 2007. In 2008, Haggard was going to perform at Riverfest in Little Rock, Arkansas, but the concert was canceled because he was ailing, and three other concerts were canceled as well; however, he was back on the road in June and successfully completed a tour that ended on October 19.
In April 2010, Haggard released a new album, I Am What I Am. Released to strong reviews, Haggard performed the title song on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in February 2011. His 2014 and 2015 tour schedule has been aggressive, including over 30 cities in 2015 alone, suggesting the kind of performing stamina usually characterized by artists half Haggard's age.
Haggard has collaborated with many other artists and recorded several successful duet albums over the course of his career. In 1966, his first duet album, Just Between the Two of Us, was released with singer Bonnie Owens, who would also become his wife. At the time of Haggard's first top-ten hit "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" in 1965, Owens was actually the better known performer, a fixture on the Bakersfield club scene who had recorded and appeared on television. Haggard and Owens, who would eventually marry, scored a minor hit with the duet "Just Between the Two of Us" in 1965 on Tally Records. As part of the deal that got Haggard signed to Capitol, producer Ken Nelson obtained the rights to Haggard's Tally sides, including the duets with Owens, and in 1966 Just Between the Two of Us was released. The LP was a forerunner of the male-female country duet golden age that would emerge in the years ahead, featuring teams like Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and George Jones and Tammy Wynette. However, there were no more hit singles, and although Owens recorded six solo albums on Capitol between 1965 and 1970, she became mainly known for her background harmonies on Haggard hits like "Sing Me Back Home" and "Branded Man". In 1970. Haggard released A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills), rounding up six of the remaining members of The Texas Playboys to record the tribute: Johnnie Lee Wills, Eldon Shamblin, Tiny Moore, Joe Holley, Johnny Gimble, and Alex Brashear. Merle's band The Strangers were also present during the recording but unfortunately Wills suffered a massive stroke after the first day of recording. Merle arrived on the second day, devastated that he wouldn't get to record with him. Haggard would do other tribute albums to Bob Wills over the next 40 years. In 1973 he appeared on For The Last Time Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys. In 1994, Haggard collaborated with Asleep at the Wheel and many other artists influenced by the music of Bob Wills on an album entitled Tribute To The Music Of Bob Wills And The Texas Playboys. A Tribute was re-released on CD on the Koch label in 1995. In 1972, Haggard had agreed to produce Gram Parsons first solo album but backed out at the last minute. According to David N. Meyer's Parson's biography Twenty Thousand Roads, Warner Brothers arranged a meeting at Haggard's Bakersfield home and the two musicians seemed to hit it off but later, on the afternoon the first session, Haggard canceled. Parsons, an enormous Haggard fan, was crushed, with his wife Gretchen telling Meyer, "Merle not producing Gram was probably one of the greatest disappointments in Gram's life. Merle was very nice, very sweet, but he had his own enemies and his own demons." In 1980, Haggard dispelled the notion that Parsons was any kind of outlaw, telling Mark Rose, "He was a pussy. Hell, he was just a long-haired kid. I thought he was a good writer. He was not wild, though. That's what's funny to me. All these guys running around in long hair talking about being wild and Rolling Stones. I don't think someone abusing themselves on drugs determines how wild they are. It might determine how ignorant they are." In 1982, Haggard recorded A Taste of Yesterday's Wine with George Jones, an album that produced two Top Ten hits, including the #1 "Yesterday's Wine." The pair were often paired in the same breath by just about every young country singer when it came to discussing authentic country music and, in 2006, they released a sequel, Kickin' Out the Footlights...Again. Haggard released the duet album Pancho and Lefty with Willie Nelson in 1983, with the title track becoming an enormous hit for the duo. In 1987, a second, less successful LP, Seashores of Old Mexico, was also released, and the pair would work together again with Ray Price in 2007, releasing the album Last of a Breed. In 1983, Haggard got permission from Epic Records to collaborate with then wife Leona Williams on Polydor Records, releasing Heart to Heart in 1983. The album was not a hit, peaking at number 44. In 2001, Haggard released an album of gospel songs with Albert E. Brumley called Old Friends. Haggard has also recorded duets with Ernest Tubb, Gretchen Wilson, Buck Owens, Janie Fricke, Hank Williams, Jr., Porter Wagoner, Clint Eastwood, Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam, Jewel, and many others. In 2015 Haggard and Willie Nelson recorded a video, "It's All Going to Pot," where both are seen singing in a recording studio while smoking joints and also recorded another duet album "Django and Jimmie". 
Haggard has endorsed Fender guitars and has a Custom Artist signature model Telecaster. The guitar is a modified Telecaster Thinline with laminated top of figured maple, set neck with deep carved heel, birdseye maple fingerboard with 22 jumbo frets, ivoroid pickguard and binding, gold hardware, abalone Tuff Dog Tele peghead inlay, 2-Colour Sunburst finish and a pair of Fender Texas Special Tele single-coil pickups with custom-wired 4-way pickup switching. He also plays six-string acoustic models. In 2001, C.F. Martin & Company introduced a limited edition Merle Haggard Signature Edition 000-28SMH acoustic guitar available with or without factory-installed electronics.
Wives and children
Haggard has been married five times, first to Leona Hobbs from 1956 to 1964. They had four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli, Noel. They divorced, and in 1965 he married singer Bonnie Owens, former wife of Buck Owens, and a successful country singer at the time. Haggard has credited her with helping him make his big break as a country artist. Haggard shared the writing credit with Owens for his hit "Today I Started Loving You Again", and has acknowledged, including on stage, that the song was about a sudden burst of special feelings he experienced for her while they were touring together. She also helped care for Haggard's children from his first wife and was the maid of honor for Haggard's third marriage. Haggard and Owens divorced in 1978. In 1978 Haggard married Leona Williams; they divorced in 1983. In 1985 Haggard married Debbie Parret, but they divorced in 1991. He married his current wife, Theresa Ann Lane, on September 11, 1993. They have two children, Jenessa and Ben.
Haggard has said he started smoking marijuana when he was 41 years old. He admitted that in 1983 he bought "$2,000 (worth) of cocaine" and partied for five days afterward, when he says he finally realized his condition and quit for good. He quit smoking cigarettes in 1991, and stopped smoking marijuana in 1995. However, a Rolling Stone magazine interview published October 1, 2009, titled "The Fighter: The Life & Times of Merle Haggard," indicates that he had resumed regular marijuana smoking.
Haggard underwent angioplasty in 1995 to unblock clogged arteries. On November 9, 2008, it was announced that Haggard had been diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer in May of that year and underwent surgery on November 3, during which part of his lung was removed. Haggard returned home on November 8. Less than two months after his cancer surgery, Haggard played two shows on January 2 and 3, 2009, in Bakersfield at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, and continues to tour and record.
On December 5, 2015, Haggard was hospitalized in an undisclosed hospital in California for pneumonia. He is expected to make a recovery, but Haggard has postponed several concerts due to his illness.
On December 19, 2006, the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved a citizen-led resolution to rename a portion of 7th Standard Road in Oildale as Merle Haggard Drive, which will stretch from North Chester Avenue west to U.S. Route 99. The first street travelers will turn onto when they leave the new airport terminal will be Merle Haggard Drive.
In 2006, Haggard was honored as a BMI Icon at the 54th annual BMI Pop Awards. During his songwriting career, Haggard has earned 48 BMI Country Awards, nine BMI Pop Awards, a BMI R&B Award, and 16 BMI "Million-Air" awards, all from a catalog of songs that adds up to over 25 million performances.
Merle Haggard accepted the prestigious award for lifetime achievement and "outstanding contribution to American culture" from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on December 4, 2010. At a December 5, 2010 gala in Washington, D.C. he was honored with musical performances by Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Kid Rock, Miranda Lambert and Brad Paisley. This tribute was featured on the December 28, 2010 CBS telecast of the Kennedy Center Honors. On June 14, 2013, the California State University, Bakersfield, honored Merle Haggard for his contributions to the arts with the honorary degree, Doctor of Fine Arts. Haggard stepped to the podium and said, "Thank you. It's nice to be noticed." On January 26, 2014, Haggard performed his 1969 song "Okie from Muskogee" at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards along with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Blake Shelton
Gary Keck, a chemistry professor at the University of Utah and an ardent fan of Haggard, introduced a series of chemical analogues of a biologically active natural product called bryostatin 1 and named them "Merle compunds" to honor his idol's legacy.
Haggard's guitar playing and voice gives his country a hard-edged, blues-like style in many cuts. Although he has been outspoken in his dislike for modern country music, he has praised George Strait, Toby Keith and Alan Jackson. Keith has singled Haggard as a major influence on his career. The Youngbloods responded to "Okie from Muskogee" with "Hippie from Olema", in which, in one repetition of the chorus, they change the line "We still take in strangers if they're ragged" to "We still take in strangers if they're haggard". Nick Gravenites, of Big Brother and the Holding Company, paid Haggard a tongue-in-cheek tribute with the song, "I'll Change Your Flat Tire, Merle," later covered by other artists including Pure Prairie League. The Dixie Chicks paid tribute by recording Darrell Scott's song "Long Time Gone", which criticizes Nashville trends: "We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin’/But the music ain't got no soul/ Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard," with the following lines mentioning Johnny Cash and Hank Williams in the same vein. Collin Raye paid him tribute with the song "My Kind of Girl", when he sang "How 'bout some music/She said have you got any Merle/That's when I knew she was my kind of girl." In 2000, Jackson and Strait sang "Murder on Music Row," which criticizes mainstream country trends: "The Hag wouldn't have a chance on today's radio/Because they committed murder down on music row." In 2005, the country rock duo Brooks & Dunn sang "Just Another Neon Night" off their Hillbilly Deluxe album. In the song Ronnie Dunn said "He's got an Eastwood grin and a too early swagger/Hollerin' turn off that rap/And play me some Haggard". Brooks & Dunn also reference Haggard in 1993's "Rock My World (little country girl)" off their Hard Workin' Man Album as they sing "Acts like Madonna but she listens to Merle/Rock my world little country girl." Red Simpson also mentions Merle and Buck Owens in his 1971 song "Hello, I'm a Truck". The last line in the song goes, "Well, I know what he's gonna do now/Take out that tape cartridge of Buck Owens and play it again/I dunno why he don't get a Merle Haggard Tape."
In 2005, Shooter Jennings mentioned him in the title track of his album Put the "O" Back in Country and later mentioned him in 2007 in his song "Concrete Cowboys." In 2006, Hank Williams III included Haggard as well as other country icons in the song "Country Heroes". Steve Goodman mentioned him, humorously but respectfully, in the song "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" (which he either co-wrote or did not co-write with John Prine). George Jones recorded two albums with him (Merle) and mentions "The Okie from Muskogee" in his song "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes". Lynyrd Skynyrd's song, "Railroad Song", references Haggard, "Well I'm a ride this train Lord until I find out/What Jimmie Rodgers and the Hag was all about". They also performed both a cover of "Honky Tonk Night Time Man" as well as their own take on the song with "Jacksonville Kid" (found on the 2001 CD reissue of the album) on the album, Street Survivors.
On June 14, 2013, Merle Haggard was presented an honorary doctorate by California State University, Bakersfield. The doctor of fine arts honor, the first in CSUB's history, was conferred during School of Arts & Humanities commencement ceremonies.
In February 2017, Keith Wortman, CEO of Blackbird Presents, announced a tribute concert would be held in Haggard's honor at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena on April 6, 2017. The date of the concert is both the 80th anniversary of his birth and the 1st anniversary of his death.
Number one hits
- "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" (1966)
- "Branded Man" (1967)
- "Sing Me Back Home" (1968)
- "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde" (1968)
- "Mama Tried" (1968)
- "Hungry Eyes" (1969)
- "Workin' Man Blues" (1969)
- "Okie from Muskogee" (1969)
- "The Fightin' Side of Me" (1970)
- "Daddy Frank" (1971)
- "Carolyn" (1971)
- "Grandma Harp" (1972)
- "It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad)" (1972)
- "I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me" (1972)
- "Everybody's Had the Blues" (1973)
- "If We Make It Through December" (1973)
- "Things Aren't Funny Anymore" (1974)
- "Old Man from the Mountain" (1974)
- "Kentucky Gambler" (1974)
- "Always Wanting You" (1975)
- "Movin' On" (1975)
- "It's All in the Movies" (1975)
- "The Roots of My Raising" (1975)
- "Cherokee Maiden" (1976)
- "Bar Room Buddies" (with Clint Eastwood) (1980)
- "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" (1980)
- "My Favorite Memory" (1981)
- "Big City" (1981)
- "Yesterday's Wine" (with George Jones) (1982)
- "Going Where the Lonely Go" (1982)
- "You Take Me for Granted" (1982)
- "Pancho and Lefty" (with Willie Nelson) (1983)
- "That's the Way Love Goes" (1983)
- "Someday When Things Are Good" (1984)
- "Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room" (1984)
- "A Place to Fall Apart" (with Janie Frickie) (1984)
- "Natural High" (1985)
- "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star" (1987)
- 1965 Most Promising Male Vocalist
- 1965 Best Vocal Group – with Bonnie Owens
- 1965 Top Vocal Duo with Bonnie Owens
- 1966 Top Male Vocalist
- 1967 Top Duo with Bonnie Owens
- 1969 Top Male Vocalist
- 1969 Album of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
- 1969 Song of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
- 1969 Single of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
- 1970 Entertainer of the Year
- 1970 Top Male Vocalist
- 1972 Top Male Vocalist
- 1974 Top Male Vocalist
- 1981 Top Male Vocalist
- 1982 Song of the Year – "Are the Good Times Really Over"
- 1995 Pioneer Award
- 2005 Triple Crown
- 2008 Poet's Award
- 2014 Crystal Milestone Award
- 1970 Album of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
- 1970 Entertainer of the Year
- 1970 Male Vocalist of the Year
- 1970 Single of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
- 1972 Album of the Year – "Let Me Tell You About a Song"
- 1983 Vocal Duo of the Year – with Willie Nelson
- 1984 Best Country Vocal Performance, Male – "That's The Way Love Goes"
- 1998 Best Country Collaboration with Vocals with Clint Black, Joe Diffie, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Pam Tillis, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt & Dwight Yoakam for "Same Old Train"
- 1999 Grammy Hall of Fame Award – "Mama Tried"
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- Haggard, Merle, and Peggy Russell. Sing Me Back Home. New York: Times Books, 1981
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