Merle Ronald Haggard (born April 6, 1937) is an American country music singer, guitarist, instrumentalist, and songwriter. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard and his band The Strangers helped create the Bakersfield Sound, which is characterized by the unique twang of Fender Telecaster guitars, vocal harmonies, and a rough edge not heard on the more polished Nashville Sound recordings of the same era.
By the 1970s, Haggard was aligned with the growing outlaw country movement, and has continued to release successful albums through the 1990s and into the 2000s. In 1997, Merle Haggard was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame for his song "Okie from Muskogee".
After several run-ins with the law, Haggard found himself in prison after he was arrested for attempting to rob a Bakersfield tavern in 1957 and was sent to the San Quentin state prison for three years. Upon his release, Haggard started digging ditches and wiring houses for his brother.
Soon he was performing again, and later began recording with Tally Records. The Bakersfield Sound was developing in the area as a reaction against the over-produced honky tonk of the Nashville Sound. Haggard's first song was "Skid Row".
In 1962, Haggard wound up performing at a Wynn Stewart show in Las Vegas and heard Wynn's "Sing a Sad Song". He asked for permission to record it, and the resulting single was a national hit in 1964. His singles "Okie From Muskogee", "The Fightin' Side of Me", and "I Wonder If They Think of Me" were hailed as anthems of the so-called "Silent Majority."
In 1969 the Grateful Dead began performing Haggard's tune "Mama Tried", which appeared on their 1971 eponymous live album. The song became a staple in their repertoire until the band's end in 1995. The Grateful Dead also performed Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home" numerous times between 1971 and 1973. In addition, the Flying Burrito Brothers recorded and performed "White Line Fever" in 1971, and toured with "Sing Me Back Home".
Singer-activist Joan Baez, whose political leanings couldn't be more different from those expressed in Haggard's above-referenced songs, nonetheless covered "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried" in 1969. The Everly Brothers also used both songs in their 1968 country-rock album “Roots.
“Haggard's next LP was “A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills),” which helped spark a revival of western swing. On Tuesday, March 14, 1972, shortly after "Carolyn" became another number one country hit for Haggard, Governor Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes.
During the early to mid 1970s, Haggard's chart domination continued with songs like "Someday We'll Look Back", "Carolyn", "Grandma Harp", "Always Wanting You", and "The Roots of My Raising". He also wrote and performed the theme song to the television series “Movin' On,” which in 1975 gave him another number one country hit.
The 1973 recession anthem "If We Make It Through December" furthered Haggard's status as a champion of the working class. "If We Make It Through December" turned out to be Haggard's last pop hit.
Although he won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for 1984's new kind of honky tonk, newer singers had begun to take over country music, and singers like George Strait and Randy Travis had taken over the charts. Haggard's last number one hit was "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star" from his album “Chill Factor” in 1988.
In 2000, Haggard made a comeback of sorts, signing with the independent record label Anti and releasing the spare “If I Could Only Fly” to critical acclaim. He followed it in 2001 with “Roots, vol. 1,” a collection of Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Hank Thompson covers, along with three Haggard originals. The album, recorded in Haggard's living room with no overdubs, featured Haggard's longtime bandmates The Strangers as well as Frizzell's original lead guitarist, Norman Stephens.
In October 2005, Haggard released his album, "Chicago Wind (Merle Haggard album)", to mostly positive reviews. The album contained an anti-Iraq war song titled "America First," in which he laments the nation's economy and faltering infrastructure, applauds its soldiers, and sings, "Let's get out of Iraq, and get back on track." This follows from his 2003 release "Haggard Like Never Before" in which he includes a song, "That's The News".
Haggard released a bluegrass album, “The Bluegrass Sessions,” on October 2, 2007. In April 2010, Haggard released a new album, “I Am What I Am.”