Haggard and his band The Strangers helped create the Bakersfield Sound, which is characterized by the unique twang of Fender Telecaster guitars, vocal harmonies, and a rough edge not heard on the more polished Nashville Sound recordings of the same era.
By the 1970s, Haggard was aligned with the growing outlaw country movement, and has continued to release successful albums through the 1990s and into the 2000s. In 1997, Merle Haggard was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame for his song "Okie from Muskogee."
Haggard's father died when Merle was nine years old, and Merle soon began to rebel by committing petty crimes and truancy.
When he was 13, he was arrested for shoplifting at a women's lingerie store in 1950, and was sent to a juvenile detention center. In 1951, Haggard ran away to Texas with a friend, but returned that same year and was arrested for truancy and petty larceny. Again escaping the juvenile detention center, he went to Modesto, California. He worked odd jobs—legal and not—and began performing in a bar.
Once he was found again, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security installation. He was released fifteen months later, but was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt.
After his release, Haggard saw Lefty Frizzell in concert with his friend, Bob Teague. After hearing Haggard sing along to his first two songs Frizzell allowed Haggard to sing at the concert. Afterwards, he decided to work full-time music career. After he had earned a local reputation, he was arrested for attempting to rob a Bakersfield tavern in 1957 and was sent to the San Quentin state prison for three years.
While in prison, Haggard ran a gambling and brewing racket from his cell. During a time of solitary confinement, he encountered a death row inmate named Drunk Adam. Haggard had the opportunity to escape with a fellow inmate nicknamed "Rabbit" but passed on it. The inmate escaped, only to shoot a police officer and return to San Quentin for execution. Drunk Adam's predicament along with Rabbit's inspired Haggard to turn his life around.
Haggard soon earned a high-school equivalence diploma, kept a steady job in the prison's textile plant, and played in the prison's band. Upon his release in 1960, Haggard said it took about four months to get used to being out of the penitentiary and that, at times, he actually wanted to go back in. He said it was the loneliest feeling he had ever had.
Upon his release, Haggard started digging ditches and wiring houses for his brother. Soon he was performing again, and later began recording with Tally Records.
The Bakersfield Sound was developing in the area as a reaction against the over-produced honky tonk of the Nashville Sound. Haggard's first song was "Skid Row." In 1962, Haggard wound up performing at a Wynn Stewart show in Las Vegas and heard Wynn's "Sing a Sad Song." He asked for permission to record it, and the resulting single was a national hit in 1964.
The following year he had his first national top ten record with "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," written by Liz Anderson and his career was off and running. 1968 saw his first number one song "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," also written by Liz Anderson.
In 1968, Haggard's first tribute LP, Same Train, Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, was released to acclaim. "Okie From Muskogee," "The Fightin' Side of Me," and "I Wonder If They Think of Me" were hailed as anthems of the "Silent Majority."
On March 14, 1972, Governor Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon for his past crimes.
During the early to mid 1970s, Haggard's chart domination continued with songs like "Someday We'll Look Back," "Carolyn," "Grandma Harp," "Always Wanting You," and "The Roots of My Raising." He also wrote and performed the theme song to the television series Movin' On, which in 1975 gave him another number one country hit.
The 1973 recession anthem "If We Make It Through December" furthered Haggard's status as a champion of the working class. Haggard appeared on the cover of Time on May 6, 1974.
In 1981, Haggard published an autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. In 2006, Haggard was back on the charts in a duet with Gretchen Wilson, "Politically Uncorrect." He is also featured on "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag" on Eric Church's debut album.
In October 2005, Haggard released his album Chicago Wind to mostly positive reviews. The album contained an anti-Iraq war song titled "America First." Haggard released a bluegrass album, The Bluegrass Sessions, in October 2007.
On November 9, 2008, it was announced that Haggard had been diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer in May of that year and underwent surgery on November 3, during which part of his lung was removed. Less than two months after his cancer surgery, Haggard played two shows at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace in Bakersfield.
In April 2010, Haggard released a new album, I Am What I Am. It received strong reviews. He continues to tour and record to this day.
Merle Haggard accepted the prestigious award for lifetime achievement and "outstanding contribution to American culture" from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on December 4, 2010.