Merle Haggard

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About Merle Haggard

Raised in Bakersfield, California, in 1937 by migrant parents from Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma, Merle Haggard became arguably the most important country singer to surface in the 1960s, scoring an astonishing 38 No. 1 country hits between 1966 and 1987 while changing the genre’s sound and exerting profound influence over the emergence of country rock. Haggard spent his youth committing minor offenses and enduring spells in juvenile detention, winding up at San Quentin in 1958 after attempting to escape from Bakersfield Jail, where he’d been imprisoned for attempted robbery. Upon his parole in 1960, he chipped away at the local circuit, which had made stars of Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, and gained attention for a hardcore honky-tonk sound that stood in opposition to the increasingly slick sound of Nashville. In the mid-’60s he began scoring hits, and as he became a star, he turned his attention to writing his own songs, drawing heavily and poetically from his checkered past with unflinching sobriety. He made tribute records to his heroes Jimmie Rodgers and Western swing star Bob Wills—sparking a revival of the latter’s style—and his 1969 hit “Okie from Muskogee” wryly mocked the counterculture at the height of the Vietnam War, establishing a contrarian if sometimes fluid mindset, a quality artificially stoked by his label’s decision to follow the single’s release with another reactionary tune, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Haggard’s sound expanded to incorporate elements of jazz, blues, and folk, and his lyrics resonated with blue-collar listeners who recognized their own struggles in his narratives in “Workin’ Man Blues” and “If We Make It Through December.” At the turn of the century, he reached a new audience with stripped-down recordings—especially If I Could Only Fly in 2000—that summoned his vintage sound, and he continued working until his death in April 2016.

Oildale, CA, United States
April 6, 1937
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