Feature

Merle Haggard’s life of crime

“I would’ve become a lifetime criminal,” says Haggard, “if music hadn’t saved my ass.”

Merle Haggard could easily have been a career felon, says Jason Fine in Rolling Stone. Growing up in California, the country music superstar led a life of what he calls “illegal motion”—cutting school, hopping freight trains, getting caught, and landing in reformatories. “All I wanted to do was buck hay and go to work in the oil fields,’’ he says. “My dad was dead and my mom was old, and I just wanted to live and work. And them sumbitches wouldn’­t let me. People were after me, running me down like I was a criminal.” By his count, Haggard spent time in 17 institutions for wayward youth, and escaped from all of them. “I don’t like to be told what to do,” he says. Eventually, he graduated from juvenile delinquency to car theft and attempted burglary. That got him a five-year sentence in San Quentin, where he spent a week in solitary confinement with just a Bible, a pair of pajama pants, and a mattress. “I thought, You better change your locality and get into another area of life, because this is pretty dangerous.” Soon afterward, Johnny Cash performed for the inmates, and for Haggard, the concert was a revelation. “He had the crowd right in the palm of his hand.” When Haggard got out, he began singing and playing guitar, writing hard-bitten country songs like Cash’s. “I would’ve become a lifetime criminal,” he says, “if music hadn’t saved my ass.”

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