June 1

Merle Haggard: A Wild Soul Freed

But Haggard’s real gift is that anyone who hears his songs recognizes the truth in them.
– quoted from his Website, merlehaggard.com

The Musical Evangelist

Following his diagnosis of lung cancer in 2008, Merle Haggard called that stage of his life as the greatest test of his fortitude. His surgery was successful and after fully recovering, he’s back on tour.

As he went along, he openly spoke more of his faith. He told The Christian Post that he’ll shout to the world what the Lord did to him. With that motive in mind, Haggard’s gospel tracks turned him into a musical evangelist. Testimonials from the Christian blogospheres mention how they learned of God’s salvation through Merle’s songs.

One notable quote was from the Religion Dispatches in the words of Craig Werner.

“I owe a lot to that faith, not least of which was my own salvation, in a way. At a time when I was drinking too much and not finding enough direction in life, a friend slipped me a tape of Haggard—among many other country stars—singing gospel. It finally occurred to me one night while smoking a Lucky Strike that I liked the album not just because the music was so good, but because the message was something I needed to hear. That propelled me into an adult faith, and from there into seminary and a career spent mostly serving a lot of people who looked and sounded like Merle Haggard.”

Here’s a summary of all his Gospel albums.

1971- The Land of Many Churches (traditional hymns, 24 tracks)

1981 – Songs for the Mama That Tried (an allusion to his 1968 hit, Mama Tried, 11 tracks)

1999 – Two Old Friends (with Albert Brumley Jr., 11 tracks

1999 – Cabin in the Hills (a mixture of traditional gospel and Merle Haggard’s originals, 10 tracks)

Jesus, Take A Hold
Album: Hag, 1971

The Imprint of his Father, James Haggard

Merle wrote his second autobiography in 1999 titled, My House of Memories. In it, he shared how much his father loathed liars. Hence, those who knew him could attest that he’s trustworthy. He’s a man of his word. Even as a child, Merle understood the value of honesty as modeled by his dad.

It stands to reason that his songs reflect the traits he’d seen in his dad. They’re all about national truth, the value of labor, and embracing your own person. It’s just unfortunate that he died early in 1945 from Intracerebral hemorrhage. Looking at the bright side, Merle did not lose the values instilled by his dad. He may have strayed in his teenage years, but upon maturity, he put those lessons to work through his songs.

By the way, did you notice how much of a rambler Merle Haggard is? He also got that from his dad. He states his complaints upfront when he’s not happy with something.

A father possessing integrity can do give more of an influence to a child for a short time than one whose presence is frequently absent even if he’d lived for a while.

His Taste of Adventure

Age 10 – he and his friends snuck into a freight train.

Age 11 – Merle’s idol then was Lefty Frizzle. Using the Bronson guitar his brother Lowell gifted him, he practiced and successfully imitated not just Frizzle’s musical brilliance, but his stage charisma, as well. Years later, those skills became useful in making Merle an established artist.

Age 16 – Frizzle performed in Bakersfield. Hearing the news, Merle snuck his way to meet his idol. Backstage, Frizzle was told that a lad could impersonate him. Curious, Frizzle had Merle play some songs and was impressed. That meeting awakened the desire in Merle to one day become a country singer.

Age 19 – Merle married Leona Hobbs. Their marriage was rocky and in 1965, they split.

Adventurous in spirit, God may have thought that Merle needed some restraining as we’ll see in the next paragraphs. 

His Mother’s Prayers were answered

At age 9, young Merle Haggard lost his dad. Though their time together was limited, Merle had deep respect towards his old man. He credited his father’s creativity in making a home for the family out of a boxcar. From the outside, it has looked like one of the regular homes in their neighborhood. Despite not being well-off, the Haggard children were well-taken care off without realizing the case until they’re older.

But, children still need a father-figure to look up to. In the absence of his dad, Merle grew up with a rebellious spirit. So, for the following years of his youth, he has been sent to juvenile facilities. His mom, Flossie Mae Haggard, a member of the Church of Christ, earnestly prayed for Merle. Her prayers paid off.

At age 20, Merle spent time in San Quentin State Prison for burglary. The prison life changed him within and music became the love of his life. Soon, he started playing music with his prison band, a mark of a man ready to change for the better. That determination of turning his life around was cemented after hearing Johnny Cash’s concert in 1958. Merle admired Johnny and not long after their first meeting, the two became country music’s twin titans in the outlaw movement.

This must have been the inspiration behind Merle Haggard’s hit, Mama Tried. Indeed, God does not waste the fervent and sincere prayers of mothers.

Pardoned with Grace

For his crime, Merle Haggard’s was given a 15 year-sentence. He only got to serve two years because, in 1960, he was given a parole and in 1972, California Governor Ronald Reagan absolved him of his sentence. Even Merle was shocked at the turn of events. Ten years later, the governor became the US President and Merle was there to perform before him.

It’s easy to say that Merle’s fame contributed to his pardon. But if we’re to see it in depth, his success in music career would not have been possible without any help. In his later years, Merle affirmed that it was all because of God’s doing.

Friendship with Johnny Cash

Initially, Merle was no Johnny Cash fan. He even thought that Cash’s music was corny. But in 1954, he saw the singer come into their San Quentin prison and performed on New Year’s Day. Merle was impressed and made Cash his goal to better himself.

Fast forward in 1963, before a TV appearance in Chicago, he bumped into Johnny in the men’s room. They struck a short talk and Merle told Johnny he was one of the inmates who’ve heard him in San Quentin.

True to his goal, Merle worked hard and advanced in his career. But, success could not balm the fear of his criminal past getting uncovered. Cash talked him out of it and convinced him to come out clean instead. So in 1969, Merle Haggard revealed his past on Cash’s TV segment. The decision proved to be fruitful because after owning up to his faults, Merle was regarded a hero.

Poet of the Common Man

Merle Haggard has always been a maverick from the start. Similar to Johnny Cash, he was not one that you can pigeon-hole in terms of musical style and concepts. While both legends sang for the unfortunates, their approaches were different. Cash writes songs based on his personal encounters with people. Merle Haggard, on the other hand, created his own characters.

Though they’re fictitious, Haggard’s characters represent real-life struggles. In a sense, the majority of his characters were his extensions. He taps into his own perspective of reality, then skillfully weave them into his music. Unlike Cash’s sometimes ambiguous wordings, Haggard prefer bluntness and leave no room to mince words.

If Johnny Cash was the embodiment of the underdog’s stories, Merle Haggard was the utterance of the silent majority. He wrote what he deemed people would think. Take his Fightin’ Side of Me and Okie from Muskogee as classic examples. In fact, when he played Okie from Muskogee in a concert in Dayton, Ohio, the Atlantic Monthly reported that people were “suddenly they are on their feet, berserk, waving flags and stomping and whistling and cheering … and for those brief moments the majority isn’t silent anymore.”

As expected, Haggard’s boldness to be the mouthpiece for certain people made him a target of hate. In an interview with Quarter Notes magazine in 1981, he expressed his sentiment that Okie made him appear narrow-minded against hippies. Still, he had no regrets as he knew the importance of getting those words out.

Awards and Recognitions

On top of 38 No. 1 singles, Merle Haggard was nothing short of a top-notch performer garnering several awards.

  • 1966- Entertainer and Top Male Vocalist of the Year, Academy of Country Music
  • 1969 – Okie from Muskogee was awarded the Album of the Year, Academy of Country Music
  • 1977 – nominated into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame
  • 1984 – Best Country Vocal Performance for That’s The Way Love Goes, Grammy Awards
  • 1994 – inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame
  • 1997 – inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame
  • 1999- Grammy Hall of Fame Award

What Success Meant to Him

In one of CNN’ interview with Merle Haggard back in 2012, he commented that he walked a blessed man’s path for having a better than average shot at everything. The realization made him believe in the existence of the heavenly Father. He further asserted that his prayers were answered by God.

In other words, Merle Haggard credits God for all he’s achieved. Having personally experienced answered prayers, he could only humbly point others to seek God’s help in everything. Just as his hand of blessings worked on Merle Haggard, so would he do the same to anyone that calls on his name.

Merle Haggard: A Wild Soul Freed 1

Political Stance

Labeled a liberal, Merle Haggard is unapologetic. In fact, he did not concern himself much with who’s seated in the presidential seat. When asked by CNN about his thoughts on former President Obama, he said that considering the bigger picture, it won’t matter who rules the country. The then President Obama only played his role in that big picture.

Merle pointed further that our current woes were consequences of our collective previous mistakes. We can’t just blame them all on the president. In line with his share of opinion, he wrote Hopes are High. To Merle, the song is a message about second chances. Much as he’s realistic, he has not given up on his country just as his Lord has not given up on him.

Though people tried to label him a liberal, Merle had never sided with any political party. He even admitted that never voted. Thus, he despised being associated with politics on the account of his song, “Okie from Muskogee.”

As a forward-thinking Christian, there’s wisdom on Merle Haggard’s stance on politics.

When the country’s in deep trouble, it is easy to pass the buck to our government. Broadening our understanding though, it helps to bear in mind that man at his best could not wield power right. For a period yes, but not in the long run. Due to our inherited corrupt nature from our first parents, Adam and Eve, we couldn’t attain moral perfection yet. Hence, only Jesus qualifies to rule us.

One day, he’ll come and earth’s everlasting King. It will be counted wisdom on our part to not be entangled with today’s passing governments and to pledge our allegiance instead to his eternal kingdom.

Bob Wills as his Godfather

Well, in Merle Haggard’s heart, he was.

Each morning, he plays Bob Wills records while he drinks tea. He loves Will’s fiddling and decided to make his band like that of his idol’s. A nostalgic soul, Bob Wills music takes him back to his country home and he felt good.

In 1970, he released a tribute album for Bob Wills. It’s called, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World. Merle didn’t know much about playing fiddle, but he persisted. For four months, he practiced each night that his band members would have to cover their heads in order to catch some sleep.

Other than his satisfaction from that 1970 album, Merle Haggard was exhilarated upon meeting Bob Wills in the flesh. The older man patted his cheek and told Merle that he’d been praying for him. The boy in Merle could never have been happier.

Kids growing up deprived of father’s love may act up for some time. But God does as he promised. He provides surrogate fathers. Even when these kids turned into adults, the psychological and emotional damages have to be repaired. Otherwise, men would not be effective in their role as dads. They’ll just frustrate their children and their wives.

On seeing his musical peers go before him

Having lived for seven decades, Merle started to feel lonely. He missed his friends especially Johnny Cash. To Merle, he’s closer than a brother and they best understood each than their closest kin.

Reportedly, before Cash’s death in 2003, Merle went to the hospital to see his friend. He disguised himself as a doctor so he could sneak in the ICU. He loved Johnny Cash that much that he broke down at the sight of his friend.

The love and friendship between these legends are reminiscent of the brotherhood between Jonathan and David in the Bible. In the book, the relationship was described as “souls being knitted.” Among men, there exists a special bond more than camaraderie. While they may have several lovers, there can only be one soulmate. And soulmates, don’t necessarily mean spouses.

His Final Years

In the early 1990’s, Merle’s at the lowest point of his life. A combination of bad decisions and abusive managers left him bankrupt at 60. Having a new family turned out to be a blessing though. His young wife Theresa and their children kept him level-headed. They’ve lived a low-profile life for the rest of the decade.

In 2000, Merle Haggard made a comeback in singing and was not disappointed. He released an album If I Could Only Fly. His band, The Strangers, were on the road again for tours.

The last years were transformative to him as well. Merle always thought of retirement. He loves making music but was tired of hearing people talk about doing things a certain way for his career. Thus, he decided to prioritize his family. He no longer wanted to waste his remaining days and energy in pursuit of continual fame.

On April 6, 2016, Merle Haggard found rest. He lived a ripe full age of 79 years.

At age 72, listen to Hag’s final song, “Kern River Blues,” is reminiscent of his Bakersfield days.

Feel free to share your thoughts on Merle Haggard’s history. For similar readings, click one of the tags below.


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