Merle Haggard – who died yesterday (April 6) on his 79th birthday – was one the legends of country music, a working class hero who channelled his wayward youth into song. Born in a refashioned train boxcar in Oildale, California in 1937, he was the son of parents who had fled Oklahoma during the Great Depression, seeking a better life on the West Coast in true Steinbeckfashion.
The young Merle was a teen tearaway, in and out of juvenile detention centres and reform schools due to repeated robbery attempts, but one who could play guitar, having taught himself by listening to the records of the great Hank Williams. While working labouring jobs, he started playing clubs in and around Bakersfield but was arrested again in 1957 and sent to the local jail. After an escape attempt he was transferred north to the infamous San Quentin where he saw Johnny Cash’s legendary 1958 prison show. Vowing to reform, he joined the prison’s own band and was released in 1960. Back at home, he became integral in creating the Bakersfield Sound, a ballsy, beefier take on the country music coming out of Nashville at the same time. ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’ was his first hit, in 1967 and a year later Merle released ‘Mama Tried’, an album full of prison themed songs, complete with grumpy convict-themed cover art and covers of Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’.
The title track was to define Merle throughout his career, as a hard-livin’, grizzled blue-collar hombre with a heart. One of the original proponents of ‘outlaw country’, the difference between Merle and the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings was that Merle – at least until the mid-1970s – was the only one to have actually been a proper outlaw, providing him with a gritty kind of cache that the others could only dream of. Though he remained out of major trouble – drugs and booze not withstanding – after his release from jail, there remained a romantic dangerousness about Merle.
His casual courting of controversy extended to his music, too, with 1969’s patriotic ‘Okie From Musgokee’ – either a hilarious hippy-baiting spoof, or an ultra-conservative redneck call to arms, depending on who you want to believe. But that didn’t stop the hippies from falling under his spell as much as the squares – the Byrds, Joan Baez and the Grateful Dead all covered his music and there were plans for him to produce alt.country wildchild Gram Parsons’ solo debut which sadly never came to fruition.
After battles with bankruptcy in the 1990s, in 2000 Merle made another unconventional move and signed to punk label Epitaph/Anti- to release the critically acclaimed ‘If I Could Only Fly’. Then, a few years ago, he admitted he’d started smoking weed again, after giving up in the mid-1990s. Though he never ended up back in prison, Merle Haggard remained an outlaw until the end.