If the question were asked, "who forged the genre that is known today as 'modern country music?," only a tiny group of country immortals could step forward to share the spotlight. One, out of that select handful, would be Merle Haggard. No, he wasn't in the delivery room on the morning country music was born; it just seems like he was. And you won't hear anybody refer to him as the father of country music. But many of its students will swear he's at least the godfather.
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In the ever-expanding array of country music stars, hitmakers, and idols, Haggard walks in no man's shadow. Instead he casts a far-reaching shadow of his own. One quickly recognizes that this is a consummate troubadour who could have carved his niche as either a songwriter, a musician or a singer.
Haggard's life path has never been easy, nor has much of it been pretty as aired in his 1981 book, Sing Me Back Home. His childhood years were spent in Bakersfield, California. The death of his father, when Merle was Just nine years old, became the catalyst that led to a squandered youth. At the same time, his love for the wandering songs from artists like Jimmie Rodgers led to an errant passion for the gleaming, endless railroad tracks and the siren song of slow freights and hobo jungles. And, along the way, to numerous brushes with the law.
Unfocused, unruly and unsettled, Merle learned early to walk the mean streets. As a teenager he took on every unskilled job that would have him, from oil field roustabout to hay-pitcher to short order cook. That was the bright side. He also saw the insides of various penal institutions for crimes ranging from burglary to auto theft and even to escape. Before he had reached the age of 21, and not long after having married his first wife, Leona, he was serving time in the notorious San Quentin Penitentary, thanks to a bungled attempt at burglarizing a tavern. But the three-year stretch within those gray and desolate walls became the experience that totally altered his view of life. After a stint in solitary confinement for making home brew, he abruptly assumed the role of model prisoner and earned a parole in 1960. Over a decade later, in 1972, California's governor Ronald Reagan granted him a full pardon.
By the time he regained his freedom, he and Leona had four children, but the marriage had already disintegrated. Fortunately, better times awaited just around the corner. While his post-prison life was a typical tale of scratching out a meager survival, it also saw the initiation of his atypical music career. Although he had made his stage debut at 16, sitting in on a Lefty Frizzell performance, it wasn't until after San Quentin that Merle joined a band as rhythm bass guitarist and began to sing in the clubs and the dives of the infamous "Beer Can Hill" area of Bakersfield.
In one brief stretch his life took a major turnaround. He was signed by Tally Records, owned by close friend Lewis Tally, and began cutting singles in a garage behind Tally's house. His first single, "Singing My Heart Out," received some regional airplay on the West Coast. It was in 1963 that he eventually broke into the top twenty of Billboard's country charts with his first national hit, "Sing A Sad Song."
Since then, the country charts have been his second home. His next few singles "(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," "Swinging Doors," and "The Bottle Let Me Down" all landed within the Top 10. Meanwhile, at the height of this exciting period, he married Bonnie Owens, who also recorded. Now his career was ready to soar to rarefied heights. In a short time he entered the No. 1 spot for the first time with "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive." He also won his first Top Male Vocalist of the Year award from the Academy of Country Music.
In 1968, the release of "The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde," continued his string of No. 1 hits in all the trade charts. What was unexpected, however, was the audience response for the B side. The song, "(Today) I Started Loving You Again," although never an A side for Merle, has since become one of the most important and lucrative songs of his career.
In 1969, with help from then band member Eddie Burris, he ventured into the arena of social commentary, voicing his patriotic feelings with "Okie From Muskogee," the song that was to have the most dramatic impact on his career. Released during the height of the Vietnam War, it would also be his most controversial, as well as another No. 1 record.
In 1981, he signed with Epic Records, adding still more No. 1 plaques to his wall, including "Yesterday's Wine," the title single culled from his powerful duet album with George Jones. That same year he released another landmark album with longtime friend, Willie Nelson. The title cut from that album, "Pancho and Lefty," also climbed to the top of the charts.
As a singer, Merle openly admits to "borrowing" the stylings of his idols, Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills, and speaks of such beyond-the-genre influences upon his music as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Still, it's his own charismatic individuality, along with those rich vocal textures that so well express the heart and soul of Haggard, that have always come shining through. In addition to his vocal performance, he has also spent a great deal of time perfecting his instrumental skills.
Ultimately over 40 of his singles have attained the Number One position in the major trade magazines. He has released over 65 albums. He has been nominated 42 times for CMA awards, more than any other male country entertainer. And he has been honored with countless other awards.
In 1994, Merle Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
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