Country music star Merle Haggard was born in Bakersfield, California, on April 6, 1937. Originally a troubled youngster who served time in San Quentin prison, Haggard grew to become a country music legend. With 38 No. 1 hits and 250 original songs, Haggard remains one of the best-known and most covered artists in country music.
"I was raised in a freight car."
– Merle Haggard
Famed country singer, guitarist and songwriter Merle Robert Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, California. The son of a railroad worker, Haggard grew up in Depression-era California. As a child, he was plagued by a respiratory condition, which frequently kept him out of school and confined to bed rest.
A rebellious teen, Haggard compiled a criminal record that included such offenses as truancy, passing phony checks, and grand theft auto. His escalating juvenile delinquency landed him in and out of reform facilities and county jails. When not serving time, Haggard pursued a love of music by playing guitar in local bars and clubs.
In March 1958, Merle Haggard was sent to San Quentin prison after being convicted for burglary and attempted escape from county jail. While serving a 2 1/2-year term, he played in the prison's country band and took high school equivalency courses. (Haggard was pardoned in 1972 by Ronald Reagan, who was then governor of California.) Upon his parole in 1960, Haggard returned to Bakersfield, where he sang and played guitar in the honky-tonks of "Beer Can Hill," the hub of the city's burgeoning country music scene.
After gaining a loyal local following in his hometown, Haggard traveled to Las Vegas, where he began playing bass guitar for Wynn Stewart. In 1962, he signed with a small label called Tally Records, for whom he recorded five songs, including his debut single "Sing a Sad Song," which rose to No. 19 on the country charts. Haggard formed his own backing band, the Strangers, before signing with Capitol Records in 1965. Later that year, the band released their debut self-titled album. In 1967, their single, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," soared to the top of the country charts. Later that year, Haggard followed the song's runaway success with, "Branded Man," his first self-penned No. 1 song.
Ultimately, Haggard's streak of No. 1 singles during the 1960s culminated with what would become his signature song and his most controversial recording, "Okie from Muskogee." Released in 1969, the song became an anthem for middle Americans whose patriotism and traditional values were under attack from Vietnam War protestors and hippies. "Okie from Muskogee" crossed over to the pop charts and earned Haggard the Country Music Association's Entertainer of the Year Award in 1970.