Press "Enter" to skip to content

Bakersfield Boy Goes to the Big House, Comes Out a Man

Nineteen-year-old Merle Ronald Haggard is given a maximum 15-year sentence in San Quentin for attempted robbery and a jail break.

Prisoner #A-45200 finds himself in California’s oldest penal institution after the botched robbery of Fred & Gene’s Café on Highway 99 a week before Christmas 1957.

Merle Haggard, 1961

Haggard, married with an eight-month-old daughter, is broke. He’s just done nine months in Ventura County Jail for grand theft auto and ended three months on a road gang for stealing scrap to augment his own scrap metal business. Short of cash, a drunk Haggard goes to the back door of Fred & Gene’s thinking it’s after closing time. His plan is to empty the register and be gone. Preparing to pry the lock, Haggard is greeted by the owner asking why he isn’t using the front door like everyone else since the hour is well before midnight and the cafe still open. Haggard runs back to his car and drives away.

According to the Bakersfield Californian, he is apprehended with a stolen check protector machine – for creating fake checks – hidden under the same blanket as his baby daughter, Dana. The Californian also reports that on Christmas Eve, Haggard escapes from the Bakersfield Jail by joining a group of prisoners on their way to court. Thirty hours later, he’s back in custody. His history of escapes and lengthy rap sheet, which includes time at Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione, earns Haggard his lengthy San Quentin sentence. In a December 16, 2004, interview with Larry King, Haggard says:

“We pulled up in a bus at night and the walls are like 70 feet high. And there’s armed guards everywhere, and if you’re not scared, there’s something wrong with you. I tell you, it’s a bad place to go.”

At the same time he’s stealing cars, shoplifting and passing bad checks, Haggard learns to pick and sing. His brother Lowell gives Haggard his used guitar when Merle is 12. Haggard’s idols are Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and Lefty Frizzell — plus Jimmie Rodgers  because that’s Frizzell’s idol. In and out of detention centers and juvenile halls, the teenaged Haggard works as a short order cook, drives a potato truck, pitches hay and takes odd jobs in Bakersfield’s oil fields. He also lands several singing gigs. Haggard says when he starts his stretch at San Quentin he behaves the same as before – rebellious. He flunks out of various prison details but is inspired after a January 1, 1959, concert by Johnny Cash, the singer’s first performance at a prison.

Haggard tells Rolling Stone in October 2003 after Cash’s death:

“He’d lost his voice the night before over in Frisco and wasn’t able to sing very good; I thought he’d had it, but he won over the prisoners. He had the right attitude: He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards — he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan. There were 5,000 inmates in San Quentin and about 30 guitar players; I was among the top five guitarists in there. The day after Johnny’s show, man, every guitar player in San Quentin was after me to teach them how to play like him. It was like how, the day after a Muhammad Ali fight, everybody would be down in the yard shadowboxing; that day, everyone was trying to learn ‘Folsom Prison Blues.’ “

Haggard considers escaping but according to biographer David Cantwell in The Running Kind is told by fellow inmate Jimmy “Rabbit” Hendricks, “You can sing and write songs and play the guitar real good. You can be somebody someday.”  Hendricks escapes, kills a peace officer and is eventually executed at San Quentin. Haggard’s turning point comes when he winds up in solitary for making bootleg booze. Haggard explains to Larry King:

“We made beer in San Quentin, just like they make beer at Budweiser, only it was a little better. They caught me drinking some of my own beer, and I fell in the restroom and they figured I was drunk, so they took me and locked me up in a jail inside of San Quentin. And that was where I decided to change directions in my life.”

Haggard wakes up on a concrete slab in a six by nine foot cell in a pair of pajama pants. A bible is nearby and a mattress that’s removed each morning at 5 a.m. Across the hall is Death Row. According to one biographer, Haggard celebrates his 21st birthday during his seven days in solitary. He can hear conversations of Death Row inmates including Caryl Chessman, the Red Light Bandit who is executed in May 1960 while Haggard is still an inmate. Haggard says to Larry King:

“Death Row, at the time I was there, was located on the top of the north block and separated by an alleyway of plumbing… what was called the ‘Shelf.’ I couldn’t see (any Death Row inmates) but I could hear them. We were on a silent system on the Shelf. I could hear prisoners such as Caryl Chessman, I heard him talking about getting a life insurance policy in the mail and that was interesting.”

In his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home, Haggard writes:

“My death flashed before me. I came off isolation determined to do something positive. My attitude improved. I decided not to try to prove anything to anybody. It was just me I had to convince and only me I needed approval from. Once I got that through my thick head, I was surprised at how things began to fall into place.”

Haggard takes a job at the prison textile mill, earns his high school equivalency, and successfully auditions for a prison country band organized by the warden. He is released November 3, 1960, for good behavior, spending the next two years on probation. His brother Lowell gives him an $80-a-week job digging ditches for his electrical contracting firm. When not digging ditches, he plays guitar in Bakersfield clubs and, as he says, “getting his name known.”  In 1972, Gov. Ronald Reagan gives Haggard a full pardon.

TOP PHOTO: Haggard depicted on a publicity portrait. Courtesy: Capitol Records