To even the most casual fan – or nonfan – of country music, there’s something intriguing about Merle Haggard.
The “Okie From Muskogee,” who with Buck Owens helped define the “Bakersfield sound” in the ’60s, and who put the “outlaw” in outlaw country in the ’70s, will come to Northern Quest Resort and Casino on Thursday for a show that’s sure to include some of his legendary hits.
Haggard’s history is, of course, as legendary as his music. He was in and out of jail as a teenager. By age 20, he was an inmate at San Quentin prison – where in 1958 he was in the audience when Johnny Cash performed the first of his famous prison concerts. As Haggard told Larry King in 2004, “It was unbelievable. I wasn’t really a large Johnny Cash fan until I saw him perform in person, and he was able to get that complete audience right in … the palm of his hand, and he didn’t even have a good voice that day. He was just so charismatic that he was overwhelmingly good that day.”
A couple years later, Haggard was paroled and he headed back to his hometown of Bakersfield, California, where the country music scene was in open rebellion against the polished, orchestral smoothness coming out of Nashville. In Bakersfield, the country was more honky-tonk, harder-hitting, with characteristic twang. Haggard fit right in.
Haggard’s first solo record, 1964’s “Sing a Sad Song,” hit the Top 20 – and proved to be the first of dozens of hits. The man has scored 38 No. 1 singles alone. “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” “Branded Man.” “Hungry Eyes.” “Working Man Blues.” “Carolyn.” And of course, “Okie from Muskogee,” which he performed in January during the Grammy Awards ceremony, joined by Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Blake Shelton.
When the Kennedy Center honored Haggard in 2010, Kristofferson put it best: “From San Quentin prison to the Hall of Fame to this. Nobody’s come so far, when you think about. And he’s been my hero since before I ever got to Nashville.”