Bakersfield, California was the birthplace of Merle Ronald Haggard, in April of 1937. The death of his father, when Merle was just nine years of age, had a profound effect upon him and, as a juvenile, he became associated with crime.
Convicted of robbery, in 1957, Merle was sentenced to spend time in gaol. It was while he was incarcerated in San Quentin Prison, in 1958, that he attended a show performed for the prisoners by Johnny Cash. Motivated by the concert he had witnessed, he joined the prison’s band.
Merle was paroled in 1960 and once he had adjusted to life on the outside, found that he could procure a living by playing in nightclubs. This eventually led to the opportunity to record, and, in 1964, his first entry to the country chart reached its zenith at No.19. A duet, “Just Between The Two Of Us”, recorded with his then wife, Bonnie Owens, followed and although it did not rise above No.28, it remained on the chart for twenty-six weeks.
Merle’s first entry to the Top Ten, “(My Friend’s Are Gonna Be) Strangers” eventuated in 1965. The year he formed his backing group, The Strangers.
“Swinging Doors”, “The Bottle Let Me Down” and his first number one, “The Fugitive”, appeared in 1966, as did the awards they brought. “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down” had both been written by Merle and it was this ability to write songs, that was to propel him into the top echelon of country recording artists.
“I Threw Away The Rose”, which ascended to No.2, in 1967, commenced a succession of thirty-seven hits in the Top Ten of which a staggering twenty-three reached number one. The first of these twenty-three, “Branded Man”, arrived before the year had finished.
Three more followed in 1968: “Sing Me Back Home”, “The Legend Of Bonnie And Clyde” and “Mama Tried”. A personal favourite of mine, “Mama Tried” featured in the film, ‘Killers Three’, which also heralded Merle’s debut as an actor.
Merle’s biggest hit, “Okie From Muskogee”, released in 1969, was destined to be named as the Country Music Association’s ‘Single of the Year’.
Having recorded on the label, Capitol, for twelve years — alongside the influential Buck Owens — Merle switched to MCA, and, in 1981, to Epic. This also marked the year in which his autobiography, ‘Sing Me Back Home’, was published.
By the end of 1990 Merle Haggard’s singles had visited America’s country chart on one hundred and two occasions. Thirty-eight of them having reached number one. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame, in Nashville, in 1994.
Merle died on the sixth of April, 2016, precisely seventy-nine years after his birth.