Friday, April 6, 2012 at 12:41 p.m.
Merle Haggard, also known simply as "Hag" was born April 6, 1937. In the seven decades since, he's become an American institution. While the songs he wrote and helped popularize have become etched into the firmament of modern country music, it's his brash attitude and uncompromising stance that's set him apart as a true original.
Haggard and his band The Strangers helped create what's now known as the Bakersfield sound, a distinct style of Americana music that was also favored by other iconic artists such as Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakum.
Haggard was also an integral part of the so-called Outlaw Movement of the 1970s, a roster that also included other such crucial country pioneers as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare, and Billy Joe Shaver. In a very real sense, Haggard earned that outlaw distinction, not only due to his renegade image, but more pointedly due to his wayward youth.
Arrested at age 13 for shoplifting, he was sent to a juvenile detention center. A year later, he ran away to Texas and was promptly arrested for truancy and petty larceny. He escaped again and subsequently moved to Modesto, California, but was recaptured and placed in a high security facility. He was released 15 months later, only to be arrested once more for beating up another boy during a robbery attempt.
It looked as though things were looking up after he was released from jail this last time. He met country star Lefty Frizzell and at his urging, Haggard embarked upon a singing career. Sadly, his run-ins with the law weren't over. In 1957, he was nabbed for robbing a Bakersfield tavern and sent to the notorious San Quentim state prison for three years.
Even in San Quentin, Haggard couldn't keep out of trouble. He ran a a gambling racket from his cell which got him sentenced to solitary confinement. Fortunately, he began to realize he was on the wrong path. He turned down an offer to escape with a fellow con, which proved lucky for him; the man he would have escaped with shot a policeman and was recaptured and sentenced to be executed, a fate that would have befallen Haggard had he gone along with the plan. Instead, he began working in the prison's textile plant and earned his high school equivalence diploma while also playing in the prison band. When he finally was released, he was on his way to a new life.
It took awhile for Haggard to find his footing. He took various odd jobs before beginning his recording career with Tally Records in 1962. He had his first national hit two years later with a cover of Wynn Stewart's "Sing A Sad Song," and his first top ten with "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" soon after. Nevertheless, the song that would earn him intenational renown and his irrascible reputation was 1968's "Okie from Muskogee," a pointed rebuke aimed at that era's youthful protestors and flower power enthusiasts.
"We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take our trips on LSD
We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin' right, and bein' free."
With that song and others like "The Fightin' Side of Me," "Mama Tried," "Sing Me Back Home," "White Line Fever," and "I Wonder If They Think of Me," Haggard claimed the unlikely role of blue collar hero, a champion for the silent majority whose politics leaned to the right of center and whose attitudes. They reflected down home values and a general disdain for the youthful causes that impacted American politics and changed society as a whole.
Surprisingly though, Haggard didn't embrace that role completely. He turned down an invitation to endorse segregationist governor George Wallace and even seemed pleased when various rock bands seized on his songs. The Grateful Dead actually recorded "Okie from Muskogee," while the Flying Burrito Brothers added "White Line Fever" and "Sing Me Back Home" to their live and recorded repertoire. Likewise, both the Everly Brothers and Joan Baez (a performer whose political views couldn't be further from those Haggard seemingly espoused) recorded "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried." Haggard's rebellious attitude had actually found a connection with the youthful insurgency, as unlikely as it might have seemed. It proved once again that music can transcend any ideological divide.
Haggard's string of hits continued through the '70s and into the '80s, and eventually he put his criminal past behind him when then California governor Ronald Reagan pardoned him for all his previous crimes in 1973. Belated musical recognition came in 2006, when Haggard was honored as a BMI Icon at the 54th annual BMI Pop Awards.
To date, he's earrned 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. Add to that his various Grammys and Haggard earns the distinction of being one of the most decorated American artists of all time. In 2010, he received the most predigious award an artist can earn when he was included in the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement and Outstanding Contribution to American Culture. The onetime outlaw had finally come full circle.
Haggard staged a significant musical comeback as well, signing to the renowned indie label Anti- in 2000, going on to release a string of critically acclaimed albums that culminated in the aptly named I Am What I Am in 2010 and his most recent effort Working in Tennessee, his second release for the leading folk and Americana label Vanguard and possibly his strongest album to date. Health problems continue to dog him; in 1995, he underwent an angioplasty and had part of his lung removed in 2008 after being diagnosed with a form of lung cancer.
Being the tough old cuiss that he is, Hag continues to soldier on. At age 75, this American master is as resolute as ever.
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