Born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California, Merle Haggard’s troubles started early. His father died which in 1945 affected him greatly. From then until 1960, he was in and out of trouble. Mostly in it.
School truancy, theft, burglary, robbery, passing bad checks, escapes, attempted robbery and attempted escape saw him mired firmly in trouble of one sort or another. In February, 1958 he was in Bakersfield Jail charged with attempted robbery, from which he escaped. Recaptured, he went to California’s legendary San Quentin for a 3-15-year stretch.
San Quentin was (and still is) a terrifying, rough, brutal place. The bad news is that it offers little but misery and hard time. The good news? They never run short of it. Assault, murder and rape are seen as everyday events because, in San Quentin, they are. Haggard described his arrival bluntly:
“We pulled up in a bus late at night and the walls are like 70 feet high and there’s armed guards everywhere and, if you’re not scared, there’s something wrong with you. It’s a bad place to go.”
Nobody acquainted with the prison’s entirely grim history and reputation could argue with that. San Quentin was and still is the location of California’s infamous ‘Condemned Row.’
The Row in 1958 was on the top floor of North Block backing on to the solitary confinement cells. Seeing as the solitary unit (known as ‘The Shelf’) was one where inmates weren’t allowed to talk, they could always hear the condemned talking just the other side of an internal wall. Haggard recounted ‘Red Light Bandit’ Caryl Chessman (executed on May 2, 1960) laughing as he received the offer of a life insurance policy in the mail. He’d probably have preferred a stay of execution or a commutation instead.
While at San Quentin, Haggard was a trouble-maker, regularly being given prison jobs and equally regularly being fired from them. He was also running a gambling and beer-making operation until he was caught having dipped once too often (and possibly a little too deeply) into his own supply. As a result he spent his 21st birthday, when Americans are legally old enough to drink, in solitary for doing exactly that:
“They caught me drinking some of my own beer, and I fell in the restroom and they figured I was drunk, so they took me and locked me up in jail inside of San Quentin. And that was where I decided to change directions in my life.”
It was just as well that he did. He faced a lengthy sentence with the likelihood of spending his life in and out of California’s penal system, hearing the chatter of condemned inmates only feet away (and presumably noticing the somber silences and hearing their goodbyes as they were led away to the gas chamber). All things considered it was a good time to ask himself exactly where his life was headed and whether he could direct it somewhere he actually wanted to go.
Inspiration came from several sources. Johnny Cash (who Haggard came to know well) played his first gig concert at San Quentin on New Year’s Day, 1959. It was a rousing success, both for Cash and for the inmates who very seldom got to see outside performers. Haggard was known in the prison as a guitarist and singer and, with Cash’s recent visit in mind, soon found himself besieged by other inmates wanting to learn guitar. As Haggard described Cash’s visit:
“He had the right attitude. He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards – He did everything the prisoners wanted to do.”
Darker and equally potent inspiration came from an unlikely source, fellow con James ‘Rabbit’ Kendrick. Kendrick had an escape plan and, inviting Haggard to come with him, also cautioned him against it. So did several other prisoners. According to Haggard, Kendrick told him that, if cornered, he’d fight rather than surrender. Impressed by Haggard’s musical ability Kendrick told him to stick with it and serve his time:
“You can sing and write songs and play guitar real good. You can be somebody someday.”
Kendrick was right about Haggard, both were right about Haggard’s decision not to escape. Kendrick duly escaped, shipping out of San Quentin in a packing crate. His period of liberty lasted only two weeks before he shot California Highway Patrolman Richard Duvall and was recaptured. In fact, Kendrick did what he’d sworn not to do. Cornered and with no hope of escape, he surrendered.
Quickly convicted and condemned Kendrick soon returned to San Quentin as a resident of ‘Condemned Row.’ Like all prisoners Haggard learned to spot condemned prisoners when he saw them. Confined within the Row as much as possible, he seldom saw them anyway. When he did, usually headed for a court appearance or a final visit, they were always escorted by two guards. Haggard later described Kendrick’s last walk through the prison:
“Even though the crime was brutal and the guy was an incorrigible criminal, it’s a feeling you never forget, when see someone you know make that last walk. They bring him through the yard, and there’s a guard in front and a guard behind – That’s how you spot a death prisoner.”
James ‘Rabbit’ Kendrick walked his last mile at 10am on November 3, 1961, one of eight prisoners executed that year. But he hadn’t just inspired Haggard to try turning his life around. Unwittingly, Kendrick provided creative inspiration as well. Haggard wrote a moving ballad about seeing a condemned prisoner led to their death. One of several songs he wrote about prison life, it became a hallmark of his;
Haggard took to redeeming himself. He earned his high school equivalency at San Quentin, playing in a prison band. On November 3, 1960, exactly a year before Kendrick died, he was paroled having been offered a job by his brother. $80 a week digging ditches wasn’t ideal, but he played bars and clubs as he had before San Quentin. Provided he kept on the right side of the law and his parole officer (he did he was free to attempt the music career that ‘Rabbit’ had urged him to pursue.
He pursued it with immense success, though not always without controversy. Haggard was unafraid to speak his mind even when his words weren’t always popular. He pioneered the ‘Bakersfield sound,’ a rougher, tougher, harder-edged antidote to more commercial country peddled in and around Nashville.
The less mainstream country artists banded together into a movement of which Haggard was an integral part, ‘outlaw country.’ In 1972 then-California Governor and future President Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon, sealing his place as a redeemed member of society and proving that Haggard had survived and thrived far beyond everybody’s expectations possibly including his own.
Always an outsider, often controversial, immensely influential, never afraid to speak his mind even when it cost him and now an icon of country music, Haggard’s career went from strength to strength. His health, however, declined in his later years. After years of suffering various illnesses he passed away on April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday.