His father had found work as a carpenter for a railroad and managed to convert an abandoned railroad car into a comfortable home before abruptly dying when Merle was only 9 years old. His much older siblings had already moved on with their lives by this time, leaving Flossie to try to raise the good-looking, stubborn and adventurous young boy without much help.
Merle’s earliest happy memories involved sitting in his father’s lap, listening to country music stars like Jimmie Rodgers on the radio. Rodgers is often pointed to as the father of country music. Also the son of a railroad worker, and a railroad worker himself, Rodgers became known as “The Singing Brakeman” and “America’s Blue Yodeler” after contracting tuberculosis and focusing on a singing career. He had many hits during the Great Depression, in the early days of the record business, even as his health was slipping away. When he died, fans lined the tracks along the way, waiting to catch a glimpse of his casket as it traveled by train to his final resting place in Meridian, Miss.
After his father’s death, Haggard longed to experience the freedom promised by the characters in those Jimmie Rodgers songs. While still a boy, he hopped freight trains, probably hoping to be transported to some place where he felt the same kind of love and protection he felt while sitting in his father’s lap. Instead, he ran into violent hobos, and his illegal behavior brought him punishment.
Unmoved by school, and uncontrollable by his deeply religious mother, he grew up steadily escalating his troublesome behavior until he wound up in reform schools which he routinely escaped from — until, at the age of 20 — he was sentenced to 15 years in California’s San Quentin Prison for attempting to commit a drunken, botched robbery of the office of a restaurant that happened to be open at the time, filled with diners.
By the time he was incarcerated there, he’d already become popular for his ability to imitate not just the intricate yodeling of Rodgers but also the silky vocals of another idol, Lefty Frizzell. As a teen, he had been able to find some work performing in the honky tonks near his home in Bakersfield, Calif., for the roughnecks who worked the oil fields in the area.
Alas, his judge had indicated he should be kept under close guard. His first year at San Quentin was often spent in solitary confinement. This lack of human connection left him with even more mental scars, which he carried for the remainder of his life, according to those closest to him.
By his second year there, after softening his recalcitrant stance toward his captors and participating in work details, he was allowed to have his Martin D-00018 guitar with him in jail. It was his most prized possession and closest friend.
Music was an encouraged pastime in the prison, and while many inmates showed little talent, they all sat spellbound and clapped wildly whenever Merle finished his rendition of Frizzell’s “Always Late With Your Kisses” or one of Rodgers’s blue yodels.
This chapter of the Haggard legend is not complete without describing the effect one Christmas Day performance by Johnny Cash had on the 21-year-old inmate. Because of his behavior, he’d been forced to miss Cash’s show the previous year. But now, better behaved and a member of the warden’s prison band, Haggard was granted a coveted front row seat.
By all accounts, Cash was not among Haggard’s favorite artists at the time. He found his vocal delivery somewhat basic and the relentless train rhythm in his songs rather tiresome. Yet in person he was won over by Cash’s tough guy persona — which included flipping the bird to the guards from the stage — coupled with his common man good humor. Most of all, Cash was there to express love for the inmates, even those who could not attend. Some of whom were on death row and utterly rejected by the rest of the world.
The impression this left on Haggard set his life in a new direction. His good behavior led to a parole. He decided he would use his talent to entertain, while being a voice for the downtrodden, reviled and forgotten souls who are shunned by the rest of society. He would name his backing band the Strangers. And in doing so, he found a reason to be. By 1972, he was granted a full pardon for his past crimes.
Haggard lived in a time before there were any concepts like Restorative Justice. It was a time before racism and poverty were widely recognized as contributing factors in convictions. Today, as the United States continues to examine its shameful prison statistics which exploded during the war on drugs and the advent of private prisons, it is nightmarish to realize how many young people are still sent off this way — never to find even the limited sort of redemption that Haggard fortunately did discover.
Here is a brief list of songs written or interpreted by Merle Haggard as only an artist with his skill and background could perform them:
- “Hungry Eyes” — This remembrance of the suffering he witnessed in his mother’s eyes is heartbreakingly tender but also point blank in placing blame upon “another class of people” who put people like his family “somewhere, just below.” It is an observation and complaint that is is probably even more relevant today as the class divide continues to solidify and widen.
- “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” — Here we find Haggard on the run from the law, an experience he learned during his youth. There is no rest for an individual in this situation. You can trust no one, and therefore can’t afford to have friends. Your best bet is to go by an alias if you are asked your name. Your only hope is to evade capture for another day and to keep moving until the jig is up. It is a realization that after escaping, there is in fact no escape.
- “Sing Me Back Home” — Inspired by a real experience from his time in San Quentin, Haggard describes a scene where an inmate (whom he was friends with) is being led by the warden past other prisoners’ cells, en route to the gas chamber. The prisoner’s final wish is for Haggard to transport him, through song, back home to a place in time before all his troubles began. To take away his awful guilt and “turn back the years” just once more before he dies.
- “Okie From Muskogee” — Often a very misunderstood tune, by the songwriter’s own admission. It became a hit in 1969 among blue collar country music fans who identified with the small-town patriotism sung by a protagonist who doesn’t “smoke marijuana” or let his “hair grow long and shaggy like those hippies out in San Francisco do.” Haggard would later claim that he was poking fun at those conservative values. It stands today as a souvenir from the Vietnam War era, when American society was sharply divided across generational lines.
- “Silver Wings” — Also released in 1969, this song crystallizes a romantic breakup into the shape of an airplane whose angelic wings are shining in the sunlight before the engines begin to roar and carry the loved one away into the sky. “Silver wings, slowly fading out of sight.”
- “Mama Tried” – This song is remarkable for how autobiographical it is. The self-aware protagonist admits to all of his transgressions over the years and accepts blame for all of it. Yet he is at pains to make it clear to everyone listening that his dear mother is blameless. In retrospect he understands the shame his behavior brought upon her, despite all of her efforts to keep him on the right side of the law.
- “Branded Man” — Probably one of the most eloquent statements about the plight of the ex-convict. Only those who are denied jobs and the opportunity to lead “respectable” lives based on their prison record can truly understand how everlasting their punishment can be. The protagonist, released from prison, observes “I paid the debt I owed ‘em, but they’re still not satisfied. Now I’m a branded man, out in the cold.”
- “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am” — Against a breezy musical backdrop, Haggard describes the sort of hard knocks he’s had in life and takes a moment to indulge in a bit of self-love. Considering the odds stacked against him in life, it’s nothing short of a triumph that he can arrive at this declaration.
- “The Women Make A Fool Out Of Me” — Also known as “Jimmie Rodgers’s Last Blue Yodel,” this tune appears on a collection of covers originally sung by his childhood idol. Perhaps due in part to his bad boy reputation, Haggard was always popular with members of the opposite sex — at least until the relationships fell apart, as they most often did. It doesn’t sound like boasting when he sings, matter of factly: “When I’m in the parlor, the women think it’s a treat. Lord, when I’m in the parlor all the women think it’s a treat. Even in the winter, they turn off the heat.”
- “If I Could Only Fly” — This cover of a song by Blaze Foley sounds like something Haggard himself might have written. It is sung by a man who’s feeling lost and is filled with longing for a loved one who is not there. Again we find the desire for escape, to take flight and be reunited with the object of his love. The dream fades, darkness descends, and he is faced with the sinking sun and one more lonely night.