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How a 1972 Pardon From Ronald Reagan Changed Merle Haggard's Life


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Merle Haggard is undoubtedly one of the greatest country musicians of all time. Following an incredible career marked by No. 1 hits, successful collaborations with artists like George Jones and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, his name with forever be listed among the genre's greats.

Known for challenging mainstream Nashville with his iconic Bakersfield Sound, the Hag always pushed the limits and stayed true to himself; from his very first album for Capitol Records that gave us "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" and "The Bottle Let Me Down" to 1980's "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" and 2015's Django & Jimmie with Willie Nelson. He's a true American legend. Even his band, The Strangers, is iconic.

Here are 11 things you might not have known about country music's beloved singer-songwriter.

1. His singing career was inspired by Johnny Cash

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Merle Ronald Haggard was an inmate of San Quentin State Prison in California when he was 20 years old and saw Johnny Cash perform. He had been in and out of jail for a slew of crimes and was currently serving a 15-year sentence. (He really did turn 21 in prison.) After an early release in 1960, Haggard got straight to work and recorded his first Top 20 hit on the Billboard chart within three years.

In a lost interview published by Rolling Stone, Haggard describes the friendship he and Cash built over the years.

"We were always humorous with each other," Haggard said. "I criticized him one time for something he did, and he answered me, 'Haggard, you have the ugliest face in country music.' We had that kind of sense of humor back then. But later I missed a couple of dates out in Oregon when I was 49 years old, and he and June called me and said, What's the matter, Haggard, did you get ahold of some bad dope?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'What's the matter?' I said, 'I'm 49 years old, Cash. I'm fixin' to turn 50.' He said, 'Oh, my God. I wound up in rehab when I turned 50. I totally understand.' ... He helped me every time he had a chance to help me, and I would have done the same for him."

2. He was born in a boxcar

During the Great Depression, Haggard's parents lived in Oklahoma but decided to relocate to Bakersfield, California for a better life after their barn burned down. The singer's father, James, worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and ended up converting an old boxcar into a home for his family. Merle was born in that very boxcar and spent many years as a child there.

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3. Ronald Reagan pardoned his past life of crime

Ronald Reagan with Merle Haggard

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In 1972, Governor Ronald Reagan pardoned all of the past crimes that the country singer had to his name. The star was so touched he even mentioned it when he performed for President Reagan 10 years later. At the concert, he said, "I hope the president will be as pleased with my performance today as I was with his pardon 10 years ago."

Haggard later said the pardon changed his life.

"You got this tail hanging on you, and suddenly you don't have it anymore," Haggard told CMT in 2004. "It's just wonderful not to have to walk up and say, 'Pardon me, before I do this, I want to tell you that I'm an ex-convict.' You have to do that with any sort of legal transaction, with leaving the country, with anything of that nature. All those things went away when Ronald Reagan was kind enough to look at my case and give me a pardon."

4. He was great at impressions

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Haggard was so skilled at impersonating other country artists he was frequently asked to do so, as evidenced by this clip from The Glen Campbell Show. Not only does he perfectly capture the sounds of Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens and Cash, but he also nails their facial expressions and their mannerisms when performing.

5. He was awarded an honorary degree

California State University- Bakersfield, gave the "Okie From Muskogee" singer the honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts in 2013. When Haggard walked up to receive this honor he said, "Thank you. It's nice to be noticed."

6. He defended The Chicks

After The Chicks criticized President George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq on stage, they received significant backlash from fans. Haggard felt they had the right to express their opinion and didn't understand why there was such a verbal witch hunt out for the trio.

They've cut such an honest groove with their career," Haggard wrote (quote via Rolling Stone). "Because they don't like George Bush, should we take their records off? I really found that sort of scary. Are we afraid of criticism? And if so, why? It seems to me, we're guilty in this country of doing everything we've always opposed all my life. I'm almost afraid to say something. It got to the point where my wife said, 'Be careful what you say.' Well, that's really not the America I'm used to."

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7. He made the Guinness Book of World Records

The country star made the Guinness Book of World Records after buying 5,095 drinks of Canadian Club for an entire club. The bill was $12,737.50 and became the largest round of drinks ever purchased.

8. He taught himself to play the guitar as a child

American country music performer Merle Haggard smiles as he plays an acoustic guitar, 1970.

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Following his father's death, Haggard's brother Lowell gave him his first guitar. Inspired by Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams, he taught himself to become a skilled guitarist.

9. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

The 2010 Kennedy Center honorees pose for their formal class photo following the formal Artist's Dinner at the United States Department of State in Washington, D.C. on December 4, 2010.  Top row, from left to right: Michael M. Kaiser, President, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; Merle Haggard; Bill T. Jones; Sir Paul McCartney; and David M. Rubenstein, Chairman, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Bottom row, from left to right:  United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Jerry Herman; Oprah Winfrey; and George Stevens, Jr., creator of "The Kennedy Center Honors".

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Following his Kennedy Center Honor for contributions to American culture, country music's common man was celebrated at a gala with performances by Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Kid Rock, Miranda Lambert, and Brad Paisley.

10. He had 38 No. 1 Country Hits and Numerous Other Classics

Merle Haggard attends 18th Annual American Music Awards on January 28, 1991 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California.

Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

The country legend is known for hit country songs such as "Hungry Eyes," "I Am a Lonesome Fugitive, "If We Make It Through December," "Sing Me Back Home," "Mama Tried," "Pancho and Lefty" (with Willie Nelson), "Workin' Man Blues," "The Fightin' Side of Me," and "Today I Started Loving You Again" (with Bonnie Owens).

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11. Toby Keith saved one of his last shows

Toby Keith and Merle Haggard  (

Tony R. Phipps/WireImage for BMI Nashville

Haggard was performing at Mandalay Bay Ballroom in Las Vegas on Feb. 6, 2016, and he was in really rough shape. It was one of his very last performances, and he probably should have been in a hospital instead of one stage. Toby Keith came to see the show and jumped up on stage to help perform Haggard's songs when he was unable to.

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This story previously ran on April 2, 2020.

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READ MORE: Merle Haggard Through the Years: The Country Legend's Life in Photos

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