Country legend Merle Haggard was both a star and a man with troubled, checkered past. Even before he was beginning to make a name for himself as a musician, later to be credited as pioneering the ’Bakersfield sound’ (a rougher, tougher antidote to the slick, almost corporate country music emanating from Nashville) he was in and out of reform schools and jails. Finally, looking every bit as though he’d be spending his time doing life in installments, brief periods of liberty interspersed with lengthier and lengthier stints behind bars, he drew a 15-year stretch in the feared San Quentin. It would prove the making rather than the breaking of him.
Born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California, Haggard’s troubles started early. The death of his father in 1945 affected him greatly and, from then until 1960, he was in and out of trouble. Mostly in it.
School truancy, theft, burglary, robbery, passing bad checks, escapes from from lock-ups, attempted robbery and attempted escape saw him mired in trouble of one sort or another. In February of 1958 he was caught and, locked up in Bakersfield Jail on a charge of attempted robbery, he escaped. Recaptured, he would be sent to California’s legendary San Quentin prison, for a 15-year sentence.
San Quentin was and remains a terrifying, rough, brutal place to do hard time. Inmates routinely assaulted, murdered and raped each other as though these were just everyday events. Which, in San Quentin, they were. Haggard described his arrival at San Quentin bluntly, as was his habit:
“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, in addition to its storied history of brutality, deprivation, hardship and suffering, the prison designated by the State of California as the location of the infamous ‘Condemned Row.’ The Row in 1958 was on the top floor of North Block and backed onto the solitary confinement cells. Seeing as the solitary unit (known as ‘The Shelf’) was one where inmates were not permitted to talk, they could always hear the condemned talking to each other from their cells only the other side of an internal wall. Haggard recounted how amused was the notorious ‘Red Light Bandit’ Caryl Chessman (executed on May 2, 1960 only months before Haggard’s release) to be offered a life insurance policy in the mail. He’d probably have preferred either a stay of execution or a commutation of his death sentence instead.
While at San Quentin, Haggard was a bit of 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 in the prison. At least he was until he was caught having dipped once too often (and possibly a little too deeply) into his own supply. It was probably a bitter irony that he spent his 21st birthday, the birthday when Americans are legally old enough to drink, that here he was in solitary for doing exactly that. As he put it later:
“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. Facing as he was 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) made it a good time to ask himself exactly where life was headed and whether he could direct it somewhere he actually wanted to go.
Inspiration to mend his ways came from several sources. Johnny Cash (who Haggard came to know well later in life) played his first prison 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 a show from 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 with requests from other inmates to teach them the 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.”
Strong (and very dark) inspiration came from an unlikely and saddening source. One of Haggard’s convict acquaintances was one James ‘Rabbit’ Hendrick. Hendrick had a plan to escape San Quentin and offered Haggard the chance to come with him, but also cautioned him against it as did several other prisoners. According to Haggard, Hendrick told him:
“You can sing and write songs and play guitar real good. You can be somebody someday.”
Hendrick was right about Haggard and, for Haggard’s sake, both were right about his decision not to escape with ‘Rabbit.’ Hendrick successfully escaped from San Quentin, hiding himself in a packing crate being shipped out of the prison. But his period of liberty lasted only two weeks before he shot a State Trooper and was recaptured. He was soon on his way back to San Quentin as a resident of ‘Condemned Row.’
Like all prisoners Haggard had learned to spot a condemned prisoner when he saw one. When being taken anywhere to or from the Row they always had an escort of two guards, one walking in front and the other right behind. As Haggard described it when he saw his friend being escorted 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’ Hendrick walked his last mile on November 3, 1961, one of eight men to die in the gas chamber that year. But he hadn’t just inspired Haggard to try turning his life around. He’d also provided creative inspiration as well. Haggard wrote a moving ballad from the point of view of a condemned prisoner seeing a fellow condemned prisoner being led away to die. That ballad, one of a number of songs he wrote about prison life, became a hallmark of his. It was the classic ‘Sing Me Back Home.’
Haggard took with a vengeance to redeeming himself. He earned his high school equivalency at San Quentin, played in a prison band and, on November 3, 1960 he was paroled having been offered a job as a laboror by his brother. $80 a week digging ditches wasn’t ideal, but he got to play in bars and clubs as he had before going to San Quentin and, provided he kept on the right side of the law and his parole officer (he managed both perfectly well) he was free to attempt the music career that he wanted and that ‘Rabbit’ (exactly one year away from his execution) had urged him to pursue.
He pursued with immense success, though not always without controversy. Haggard was a man never afraid to speak his mind even when his words weren’t always popular. He pioneered the ‘Bakersfield sound’ that provided a welcome, rougher, tougher, harder-edged antidote to the commercial country being peddled by the country establishment in and around Nashville, Tennessee. The less mainstream country artists found themselves banded together into a movement of which Haggard was an integral part, a movement known appropriately as ‘outlaw country.’ In 1972 then California Governor Ronald Reagan (later, of course, to become President) granted the now-famous 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 including, perhaps, 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.
Merle Haggard – a genuine outlaw man.