Revealing the Untold Story of Merle Haggard: 13 Fascinating Facts
The world of country music mourned the loss of a true legend when Merle Haggard passed away at the remarkable age of 79, coinciding with his birthday. While most are familiar with his incredible success as a country musician, there are lesser-known aspects of Haggard’s life that add depth to his extraordinary journey. Join us as we uncover 13 intriguing facts about the iconic “Okie from Muskogee” that will captivate and surprise you.
13. A Humble Abode in Unlikely Places
In 1937, Merle Haggard came into the world, beginning life in the renowned “Oildale Boxcar.” Amidst the hardships of the Great Depression, his father, James Haggard, ingeniously transformed a boxcar into a home for their family. Merle spent his formative years in this unique dwelling.
In a heartfelt tribute, Haggard revisited the family home in early 2015 before it was disassembled, piece by piece, to be preserved for posterity. Today, you can find this cherished abode on display at the Kern County Museum.
12. Johnny Cash: The Catalyst of a Musical Journey
Many are familiar with the rough start to Merle Haggard’s early years. After his father’s passing, he found himself spiraling down a rebellious path. As a teenager, Haggard had several encounters with the law, even managing to escape confinement at least once. However, everything changed when, in 1957, at the age of 18, he was arrested for burglary and sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin State Prison. It was here that Haggard’s life took an unexpected turn.
Inside the prison walls, he had a fateful encounter with the legendary Johnny Cash, whose enthralling performances inspired Haggard to turn his life around and pursue a career in country music. Little did he know that this decision would lead him to become one of the greatest singer-songwriters of all time. Haggard and Cash developed an unbreakable bond, with Haggard once remarking, “I think we would’ve killed for each other.”
11. Lefty Frizzell: The Idyllic Inspiration
Even in his teenage years, Merle Haggard recognized the craftsmanship and immense talent of Lefty Frizzell. In his own words, Haggard noted, “The impact Lefty had on country music is immeasurable… No one could handle a song like Lefty. He would hold onto each word until he finally decided to drop it and pick up the next one. Most of us learned to sing listening to him.”
10. A Pardon from the President
On March 14, 1972, Merle Haggard, no stranger to legal troubles, received a full pardon from then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. This pardon marked a significant turning point in Haggard’s life, as he had been unjustly convicted without proper representation due to his impoverished background. Years later, he had the honor of meeting and performing for President Ronald Reagan, expressing his gratitude during the performance, saying, “I hope the president will be as pleased with my performance today as I was with his pardon ten years ago.”
09. An Unrequited Passion for Dolly Parton
Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton‘s relationship spans several decades. They even embarked on a joint tour in the mid-’70s, shortly before Haggard’s separation from his then-wife Bonnie Owens. In his 1981 memoir, “Sing Me Back Home,” Haggard confessed his deep admiration for Dolly, describing her as an “exceptional human being who lives underneath all that bunch of fluffy hair, fluttery eyelashes, and super boobs.” Dolly, both flattered and amused by the description, jokingly shared, “I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or flattered.” Haggard also revealed that he wrote his 1975 hit song, “Always Wanting You,” as a tribute to the country queen.
08. A Chart-Topping Duet with Clint Eastwood
In 1980, actor and director Clint Eastwood approached Merle Haggard to record a duet titled “Bar Room Buddies” for the soundtrack of his movie “Bronco Billy.” Haggard not only lent his voice to the song but also made an appearance as himself in the film. The collaboration proved to be a success, with the song reaching No. 1 on the Billboard country chart that same year.
07. An Entry in the Guinness Book of World Records
Merle Haggard’s name once graced the pages of the Guinness World Records. Since March 21, 1983, he held the record for buying the largest round of drinks. At Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth, Haggard generously treated his fans to a staggering 5,095 one-ounce drinks, totaling a whopping 40 gallons. The grand bill amounted to $12,737.50. Although his record was eventually surpassed in 2016, this gesture stands as a testament to Haggard’s immense generosity and love for his fans.
06. A Defender of Free Speech
When the Dixie Chicks faced severe backlash for criticizing President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq during a live performance, Merle Haggard stood in defense of their right to express their opinions. He questioned whether their records should be banned simply because they held differing political views, stating, “That’s not the America I’m used to… They have the right to say what they want.” Haggard’s unwavering support for freedom of speech resonated with his fans and solidified his status as a true patriot.
05. The Merle Haggard Post Office Building
In April 2018, the town of Bakersfield, California, where Merle Haggard is synonymous with its rich country music heritage, paid homage to the beloved icon by naming a post office building in his honor. Approximately 300 people gathered to celebrate the dedication of the Merle Haggard Post Office Building. This lasting tribute serves as a reminder of Haggard’s unwavering spirit, his candidness about his own imperfections, and his ability to uplift and touch the souls of those around him.
04. A Doctor of Fine Arts
In 2013, Merle Haggard received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from California State University, Bakersfield. This prestigious recognition acknowledged his significant contributions to the Bakersfield Sound, a subgenre of country music that emerged in the region during the 1950s and ’60s. When presented with the honor, Haggard graciously expressed his gratitude, stating, “Thank you. It’s nice to be noticed.”
03. A Lifetime Achievement Acknowledgment
In 2010, Merle Haggard joined an elite group of artists as a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement in the performing arts. Sharing this prestigious recognition with luminaries such as Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, composer Jerry Herman, and dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, Haggard’s impact on the world of music was duly celebrated.
02. The Master of Impersonations
In addition to his prowess as a singer-songwriter, Merle Haggard possessed another talent often overlooked by many—a remarkable ability to impersonate others. His favorite subjects for impressions included Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Buck Owens. Haggard not only replicated their distinctive voices but also mimicked Owens’ signature shoulder movements and half-closed eyes, effortlessly embodying the essence of his fellow artists during his performances.
01. A Birthday Prophecy Fulfilled
Merle Haggard’s youngest son, Ben Haggard, revealed a bittersweet prophecy that his father shared with the family before his passing. Merle had predicted that he would die on his 79th birthday, and his premonition turned out to be accurate. In the wake of his father’s death, Ben shared a heartfelt message on Facebook, expressing his father’s love for life and music and referring to him as not just a country singer but “the best country singer that ever lived.” The legendary artist battled double pneumonia and passed away at his home near Redding, California, leaving behind a timeless legacy.
Merle Haggard‘s life was a testament to resilience, artistic brilliance, and the power of authenticity. As we reflect on the captivating story of this country music icon, let us remember the man who touched our hearts with his music, honesty, and unwavering spirit. Merle Haggard will forever be remembered as an incomparable legend in the realm of country music.