By Thomas Winfrey
“I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole,” music legend Merle Haggard sang in his famous 1968 hit “Mama Tried.” The song was Haggard’s public apology to a religious mother, Flossie Mae, and his acknowledgement that “she tried to raise (him) right.”
Merle Ronald Haggard passed away on his birthday, April 6, 2016, at his ranch in Palo Cedro, Calif. He was 79 years old.
Haggard was only 15 years old when he first went behind bars for a robbery. In the next five years, he was locked up for other petty crimes until, at the age of 20, he was sent to San Quentin State Prison for burglary in 1957. His three years spent behind the San Quentin walls ultimately impacted both his life and the music he made.
Curly Ray Martin, 76, lived several years alongside Haggard, inside and outside of prison walls. Both grew up in Oildale, Calif., a small town on the outskirts of Bakersfield.
“I drove my grandmother over to Mrs. Haggard’s house because they both were church-going women, and that’s where I met Merle,” recalls Martin. “About three months later, I heard he was in trouble — and he ended up in San Quentin.”
But Haggard was in trouble from birth. He spent his first years in the abandoned boxcar that his father, James, a railroad carpenter, had turned into a makeshift home for his family, according to Nancy Henderson in the New York Times. Soon, Merle lost his father to a stroke.
“It was a devastating event for the young boy, who was very close to his father,” writes Henderson.
Haggard spiraled into a rebellious way of life. Henderson said Haggard hopped a freight train and was chased all the way to Fresno, where police retrieved him.
He spent his youth engaging in petty crime and truancy from school. Even when he was in reform schools, he attempted to escape, only to be thrown back in again, according to Henderson.
Nearly a year after Haggard landed at San Quentin, Martin followed in his friend’s footsteps, and reunited with Haggard at San Quentin for similar burglary charges. During their time spent together, Haggard taught Martin how to play the bass guitar.
Long before Haggard got his first break in the music industry (he was hired to play bass in Wynn Stewart’s band in 1963), Haggard honed his craft of music on the San Quentin yard, Martin remembered.
“Sometimes you’d see ol’ Merle sitting by himself near the old steam plant, up against the fence, writing songs, and everyone would just leave him alone,” Martin said. “He would play a lot of his own music, but I would also hear him play music from Lefty Frizzell and George Jones.”
When Haggard wasn’t alone with his musical muse, Martin would join Haggard in the yard, where they’d drink and play music.
“In 1959, Merle and I went to The Hole twice for getting drunk and raising hell — once on his birthday, once on mine,” said Martin.
The wild side that had sparked in Haggard’s youth had followed him into prison, where he spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement.
While incarcerated at San Quentin, Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform live in 1958. The experience convinced Haggard to take his talents more seriously. After he was paroled in 1960, Haggard set his sights on becoming a country singer like his role models — Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers.
He took his guitar and performed in the bars of Bakersfield, where he attracted attention and help from those around him.
“Liz Anderson, Ken Nelson, Buck Owens, Wynn Stewart and Tommy Collins all helped Merle because he was good and he deserved to be helped,” Martin said.
By 1964, Haggard reached the Country Top 40 with “Just Between the Two of Us,” a duet with Bonnie Owens, the former wife of country singer Buck Owens, and Haggard’s second wife.
Johnny Cash once introduced Haggard as a “man who writes about his own life and has a life to write about.” Haggard’s honesty became a staple of his unique music.
He wrote about his drinking in his number one hit, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” one of many songs in which Haggard was candid about his life and the questionable decisions he had made in life.
“I’ll tell you what the public likes more than anything,” Haggard once told the Boston Globe. “It’s the most rare commodity in the world – honesty.”
On top of his honesty, Haggard stood out in country music for “defying the conventions of the Nashville musical establishment,” and was “an architect of the twangy Bakersfield sound, a guitar-driven blend of blues, jazz, pop and honky-tonk,” according to the New York Times.
Four years after his release from San Quentin, Haggard reunited with Martin, who was paroled, in 1964. Martin recalled how Haggard had already become a success, “so much so that he could drop $3,000 on a bet at one of the tables.”
In 1972, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a rare full pardon.
But Haggard never forgot where he came from. In his song, “Branded Man,” which was released in 1968, Haggard sang, “But no matter where I’m living, the black mark follows me/I’m branded with a number on my name.”
Martin, who has been back in prison since 1967 for a murder conviction, considers Haggard’s transformation a triumph. Haggard’s music and the stories he told with his songs have resonated with millions of fans over the years.
“Merle made everyone proud,” Martin said of his old friend.
Haggard is survived by a sister, Lillian; his wife, Theresa Lane; their two children, Ben and Jenessa; four children from his first marriage, Dana, Kelli, Marty and Noel; and a son, Scott, from a previous relationship.
By Thomas Winfrey