Merle Haggard--a working-class hero long before John Lennon used the phrase--turned 50 this year. Looking at his face, it's easy to see where such songs as "Branded Man," "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "(There's Only Me to Blame 'Cause) Mama Tried" came from. It's a craggy, honest face, full of the kind of character that comes from having seen its share of hardship.
Haggard--who will be at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim on Friday night--was born in a boxcar to a pair of Dust Bowl refugees. His father died of a brain tumor when Merle was 9. It wasn't long after that the boy began hopping freight trains and working odds jobs in fruit orchards and oil fields, driving a potato truck and cooking short orders to get by. These experiences still seem to fuel the fierce convictions and rugged individualism that characterize his music.
In and out of trouble as a teen-ager, Haggard wound up in San Quentin (he was prisoner No. A-45200) after he and some friends tried to rob a bar they thought was closed. At one point, he landed in solitary confinement for brewing beer in his cell. Soon after that, he had a conversation with Caryl Chessman, a convicted murderer on Death Row--and soon after that , Haggard somehow turned himself around: He became a model prisoner and was paroled in 1960.
He returned to Bakersfield, where he dug ditches and sang on the side. Three years later, he had his first national hit with "Sing a Sad Song" on Tally Records. It was followed by "Just Between the Two of Us," a duet with Bonnie Owens. Capitol Records stepped in and bought out Haggard's Tally contract. The 25-year-old singer was on his way.
Such early hits as "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" and "Branded Me" established Haggard; such subsequent songs as "Mama Tried," "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" and "Okie From Muskogee" made him a force to be reckoned with in country music. "Okie" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" became conservative anthems during the late '60s: Hearing them, working America breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
Looking back on his remarkable rise (he made it from parolee to Country Music Assn. Entertainer of the Year in less than a decade), Haggard recently made a quiet admission: "Sometimes, I can't believe that I've led this life myself. It's scary in a way when you realize how much has really happened. . . . It's so much more than (happens to) most people."
It's not easy to pin him down on how he got to where he is. "The way I look at it," he allowed, "life deals you a far better set of cards than you'll ever deal yourself. So, I really don't write the script. I don't get up in the morning and say, 'OK, today we're going to see how much trouble we're going to get into!'
"If you're like me and you've got a million different moods, you never know what you're going to want to be doing from one moment to the next."
Still, with age has come wisdom. Haggard said he believes that these days, he has a somewhat better sense of how he wants to live and what he wants to accomplish. And a certain code has evolved.
"After all these years, I've found that honesty is still everything," he said. "If there's anything that we got out of all those Saturday afternoon Roy Rogers movies growing up, it was that the good guy always, somehow, wins. And I really do, after all these years, believe that. Because somewhere, no matter how it's sifted, the cream somehow always manages to rise to the top. It may take time and a lot of heartache, but it always happens."
He brings that same ethic of honesty into the recording studio. He said, rather bluntly, that all the songs on "Chill Factor," his latest album, "matter to me. I just couldn't record songs that don't matter to me anymore. There's not enough money in the world that could buy a slot on one of my records if the song wasn't right.
"There may have been times early on that I would have (included) songs that weren't 100%. But not now. Some people only put songs on their records just because they wrote them or because they own the publishing, so they make more money. But it's not the way to make a record."
However high his ideals, he remains modest in discussing his own abilities. "I think people relate so strongly (to my songs) because everybody has a little bit of songwriter and a little bit of guitar player in them. They know how to put words that rhyme on paper; I do that, too.
"I write about the kinds of things that happen to everyone. So, it sounds like things that might've happened to them, I guess. . . . I think," he continued after a pause, "with writing songs, they either come from my heart or they come in on some frequency. There are songs that really seem to come through me, and I serve as more of a translator. I just sit there and watch it all go down on paper."