Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Haggard, who will take the stage at the Hanford Fox Theatre on March 6, is apparently not a fan of today’s country music. “Everything sounds like the same damn song,” he said. “It’s true. Nobody’s got anything to say anymore.”
Haggard, however, is known for having a great deal to say in his music. His songs are borne of his own remarkable, troubled personal history.
Born in a converted boxcar on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, Haggard grew up listening to country radio and basking in the loving embrace of a close-knit family. Shattered by the sudden death of his father when he was just nine years old, Haggard slipped into a pattern of resentment-fueled criminality that escalated from minor scrapes with the law into a series of incarcerations at – and escapes from – California Youth Authority lockups. When he wasn’t doing time, he’d get loaded and sing country music, sometimes for tips, but mostly just for his own amusement. By age 16, he was good enough that his idol, Lefty Frizzell, allowed him to guest on one Frizzell’s shows at Bakersfield’s Pumpkin Center dancehall. Nonetheless, Haggard was more intent on raising hell than playing music and the ongoing pattern of arrest, abuse by guards, escape, flight and re-arrest climaxed with an incorrigible classification and some hard time at that most infamous penitentiary, San Quentin.
Following his release in 1960, the ex-con slowly re-invented himself as a performer and with the encouragement of bassist Fred Maddox and the aid of Bakersfield TV host-musician Herb Henson, Haggard eventually found himself working as bassist for the Los Angeles country star Wynn Stewart. After Stewart presented Haggard with “Sing a Sad Song,” the number that became his first hit in 1964, Haggard quickly established himself as one of the most dominant, creative and important forces in country music. With no less than 38 number one hits and a trove of profoundly influential songs, from controversial flag-wavers “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “Okie from Muskogee,” to the excruciatingly sorrowful “If We Make it Through December,” to the bruised romance of “Today I Started Loving You Again” (a song subsequently recorded by some 500 different artists), not to mention countless awards and honors (multiple trophies from the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association, recognition from the Grammys, BMI), his 1994 induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame and, most recently, the White House ceremony where he was presented with The John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts award for lifetime achievement and outstanding contribution to American culture, Haggard’s impact on country music remains indisputable.
Such a forthright attitude is all too rare in both American society and country music, but Haggard’s often brazen candor potently underscores his incalculable value as an artist.
Tickets are $55, $65 and $75, are available at foxhanford.com or 584-7823.