How Merle Haggard Went From Solitary Confinement to Stardom

3 minute read

Merle Haggard, the country-music icon who has died at 79, wasn’t always a musician. First, he was a thief. But, as TIME pointed out in a 1974 cover story about his role as a “pure, proud and prominent link between country’s past and present,” those two careers were not unrelated.

At the time, in the early 1970s, a craze for country music was sweeping the U.S. The genre accounted for one-fifth of the entire American music economy at the time—thanks in no small part to Haggard, who had gained national fame in 1969 with “Okie from Muskogee.”

Part of the music’s appeal, the story explained, was its determination not to shy away from raw emotion and the harsh realities of life. As Haggard put it, country was “just journalism put to music.” And, as the article’s opening paragraphs make clear, the trouble of which he sang was something he knew about firsthand:

As the old blues singers would have put it, he was a real bad-ass man. While still a kid in California, he escaped from two reform schools seven times. At age 18 he moved on to car theft. That drew him ten months in the Ventura County jail. Next time came a 90-day sentence for raiding a scrap-metal yard.

A year later he made a real name for himself—California 845200. This time he was in San Quentin on a two-year, nine-month rap for attempting to hold up a bar in his home town, Bakersfield. As cocky and uncontrollable as they come, he steamed up some home brew under the guards’ noses—and got caught. As his 21st birthday rolled around, he found himself in solitary confinement with only pajama bottoms, a Bible and a blanket on a cement floor to call his own. At long last he was convinced that something was wrong with the way he was leading his life.

The right way turned out to be the country music he had known and sung since childhood. The ex-con who had spent seven of his first 23 years locked up went on to become Country Superstar Merle Haggard, who could mesmerize one crowd after another by singing:

Did you ever steal a quarter when you was ten years old?

Ever wear a brogan with a hole in the sole?

Did you ever ride a freight train while runnin ‘from the law?

I’ve done it all, Lord,

Lord, I’ve done it all.

Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Songs of Love, Loyalty and Doubt

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