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Merle Haggard Reflects On His Outlaw Country Past

Merle Haggard.
Courtesy of the artist
Merle Haggard.

"There's no one in contemporary popular music who has created a more impressive legacy — or one that spans a wider variety of styles — than Merle Haggard," music critic Peter Guralnick once said.

Haggard, who helped create the famous Bakersfield Sound, has recorded 38 No. 1 hits, including "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," "Mama Tried" and "You Take Me For Granted." In 1994, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Five years later, he would receive a Grammy Hall of Fame Award for "Mama Tried," his famous honky-tonk tune about a mother's suffering after her son is sentenced to life in prison.

That song, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, was about "97 percent" autobiographical.

"Some things we fudged on slightly to make it rhyme, but the majority of it's pretty accurate, I guess," Haggard says. "I was probably the most incorrigible child you could ever meet. I was already on the way to prison before I realized it, actually. I was really kind of a screw-up.

Haggard, who attended three of Johnny Cash's concerts while locked up at San Quentin, details his years in and out of prison, his musical influences and his many musical successes in an interview that originally aired on April 6, 1995.

Interview Highlights

On Turning His Life Around

"While I was in San Quentin, I one day saw the light. I didn't want to do that no more. I realized what a mess I made out of my life, and I got out of there and stayed out of there. Never did go back. And went and apologized to all of the people I wronged and taken money from. I think when I was 31 years old, I paid everyone back, including my mother."

On Changing His Reputation In Prison

"I went back down on the yard and asked for the roughest job in the penitentiary, which was a textile mill, and went down and started building my reputation. Started running in reverse from what I'd been doing and started trying to build up a long line of good things to be proud of, and that's what I've been doing since then."

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.