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Merle Haggard is not shy about his past.
Before he became the legendary singer he is today, he lived a very unique lifestyle and it shaped him into who he is today.
Haggard started to rebel after his father passed away when he was nine-years-old and eventually ran away from home in Bakersfield, California to Texas when he was just 14.
Once he returned, he was sent to a juvenile detention center for shoplifting, writing fraudulent checks, and theft. He escaped a number of times, and eventually was sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin Prison after he escaped from Bakersfield Jail.
“My reputation of escape, they wouldn’t let me out of the cell after 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Haggard said in an interview with Dan Rather on AXS TV. “For the first 18 months, maybe a little more more, I wasn’t able to participate in any of the functions that were available.”
While he was in San Quentin, Haggard found out his wife at the time was pregnant with another man’s baby, which led him down a bad path. He planned multiple escapes, but never went through with them. He got fired from several prison jobs and began brewing beer and running a gambling racket.
After he was caught drunk in prison, Haggard was sent to isolation for a week, where he had deep conversations with death row inmate Caryl Chessman. This experience motivated Haggard to turn his life around. He then kept a steady job at the prison’s textile plant.
Johnny Cash‘s 1958 performance at San Quentin inspired Haggard to join the prison’s country band and because of good behavior, he was finally allowed to participate.
“With the help of the people that were playing on what they called The Warden Show, they were able to get my classification changed after about 18 months or so there, and I was able to play The Warden Show,” he explains.
He also revealed how the performers on The Warden Show were paid – with cigarettes and a steak dinner!
See the interview below.
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