Merle Haggard and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s
Grand Junction, Colo.
Merle Haggard, at 75 years of age, is still “Moving On.” He will be performing in Cheyenne, Wyo., on July 22nd as the headliner for one of the biggest celebrations in the West, Cheyenne Frontier Days 2012.
Merle Haggard isn’t really an “Okie from Muskogee,” like his hit song, but he does believe in “livin’ right and bein’ free.” He was born in Oildale, Calif., an oil town near Bakersfield, on April 6, 1937 to Flossie Harp and James Francis Haggard from Oklahoma. James worked in the Kern River Oil Field in Oildale with others from Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. They were all called “Okies” by their neighbors, because of their southern accents, southern food and hillbilly music.
The Haggard’s, Merle’s parents, were “Okies,” who left their desolated, dried-up Oklahoma farm, with thousands of others and headed west to start over, abandoning the only land they knew. They loaded any belongings that they could scavenge from the overpowering dirt surrounding them, while trying to fit their families in the back of old cars and trucks. Route 66 was under construction and they followed it until the paving ran out. The dirt road was marked and people called it the “Mother Road” running from Chicago to California. Most of its travelers were “dirt poor” and had never traveled past their states’ borders before. They camped out anywhere they could, while scrounging for jobs along the way to feed their families and keep gas in their vehicles.
History books tell us there was a mass exodus of 500,000 people who were left homeless in Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and the Plains states, during the great “Dust Bowl” days in this country, which lasted from 1930 to 1936. Winds full of dirt blew east and south. It was caused by long periods of drought, no crop rotation, poor farming methods, and the deep plowing of top soil. Known as “the black blizzard,” it covered the streets of Chicago and other eastern cities in its path.
They made it to Oildale and James Haggard found work in the oil fields, but Merle was only 9-years-old when his father died. The family lost his paycheck, making his Mom a single mother with a rebellious son to raise. Years later, he wrote and recorded the song, “Mama Tried,” describing his life as a young child.
At age 10, Merle hopped his first freight train. Through his teen years, he led a life of juvenile crime, going in and out of prisons. Burglary, alcohol problems, theft and more serious crimes led to more jail time. During one of the times when he was paroled, and was on the outside, he heard Lefty Frizzell play his guitar at a concert. Whether true or not, stories say that Lefty invited Merle up on stage to play guitar with him. Buoyed by the experience, he decided to focus on his writing, singing and musical abilities, and would try to make a living that way.
But in 1957 he was arrested, and sent to San Quentin. Merle was an inmate in 1959 when Johnny Cash performed there for New Year’s Concert.
When he was paroled from prison, he formed a band, “The Strangers in Outlaw Country” and never went back. On March 14, 1972, Merle was given a final parole by Governor Ronald Reagan. With his Bakersfield, low down, honky-tonk, “Bakersfield Sound” that his fans love, “The Hag” has been playing from 1963 to the present day.
He was invited to play at the White House for the birthday party of President Nixon’s wife, Pat, on St. Patrick’s Day because she loved his music. He played for President Ronald Reagan and wife, Nancy. In 1997, he was enrolled in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. Most recently, he was honored at the Kennedy Center with other artists by President and Mrs. Obama.
Music critics say that right now, at age 75, “the Hag is at the top of his game.” When asked, he will tell you that his idol has always been Bob Wills. Merle and his wife, Theresa, and two sons, live on their 180-acre ranch near Lake Shasta, outside of Redding, Calif. He loves to fish and has a river and a pond on his property, in addition to lots of wildlife. He records three to four albums a year at his own recording studio called, Shade Tree Manor.
Merle has an extensive tour schedule, and intends to “just keep playing and performing.” Recently, a newspaper report read that he was supposed to perform in Macon, Georgia on January 17th. However, Merle became ill only minutes before he was to take the stage, and was taken to the Medical Center of Macon, Georgia suffering from double-pneumonia. While there, the doctors found three stomach ulcers, diverticulitis in the esophagus and other medical issues. He’d had a lung removed in 2008 due to lung cancer, but has been cancer-free since then.
Merle was released from the hospital on January 26th and flew back home to his ranch outside Redding, Calif., where he made a full recovery, and got back on his scheduled tour. The January concerts in Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas and Oklahoma had to be rescheduled for April. His first February 2012 concert for Tucson was delayed until February 28.
Since he has written most of his own songs all his life, music critics rightly call him, “the poet for the common man.”
And when Merle Haggard sings his song, “Okie from Muskogee,” the entire audience lustily joins in singing it with him, swaying back and forth with each and every word. We love you, Merle! Your fans in Cheyenne will be watchin’ you. ❖