Merle Haggard’s best songs are powerful vignettes portraying damaged souls who manage to summon the inner strength to resist life’s worst onslaughts. That Haggard himself lived through many of the traumas he sang about is evident from his music, giving it a rare emotional quality.
Born near Bakersfield, California, to a family of Oklahomans who had just made the westward trek, Haggard’s early childhood home was a converted boxcar. His father died of a stroke when Merle was 9. Many of his songs recall the troubles of those early years.
Haggard quit school in the eighth grade and hopped on a freight train when he was 14, roaming the Southwest for several years and filling the void left by his father’s death with a life of petty crime and time in reform schools. This was also when he began dabbling in music. At 20, Haggard—now an alcoholic, married, and a father—attempted to break into a restaurant. He was arrested and sentenced to three years in San Quentin.
Paroled in 1960, Haggard returned to Bakersfield and, while digging ditches for his brother, began performing country music on the side. He scored a regional hit in 1963, landing him his first major record contract. In 1966 he topped the country charts for the first of what would be many times.
This according to “Merle Haggard” by Greg Bower (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 269); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.
Today would have been Haggard’s 80th birthday! Below, performing the semi-autobiographical Mama tried.