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Why Did Merle Haggard Go To Prison?


Merle Haggard is considered one of the most influential country music artists of all time. He had 38 number-one hits during his career spanning over three decades. However, before he became famous, Haggard had a troubled past and spent time in prison. This article will explore Haggard’s criminal history, the crimes he committed, and the reasons why he was incarcerated as a young man.

Merle Haggard’s Early Life

Merle Ronald Haggard was born in 1937 in Oildale, California. His family lived in an old railroad boxcar that they converted into a house. When Haggard was 9 years old, his father died which deeply affected him. As a rebellious youth, Haggard started getting into trouble with the law.

At age 14, Haggard ran away to Texas with a friend but returned shortly after. He dropped out of high school and got involved in petty crimes like hopping freight trains and writing bad checks. The death of his father left Haggard without direction and he fell in with the wrong crowd.

Burglary and Jail Time

In 1956 at age 19, Haggard was arrested for attempting to rob a restaurant in Bakersfield, California. He drunkly tried to hop a fence but was picked up by police shortly after. Haggard was arrested and sentenced to time in county jail.

After being released, Haggard committed a string of burglaries along with his friend Lewis Talley. In 1958, the 21-year-old Haggard was arrested outside a cafe in Las Vegas and charged with burglary. He was later arrested again in Bakersfield around the same time for more break-ins.

Haggard confessed to the string of burglaries and a judge sentenced him to 2-3 years in California’s San Quentin State Prison. He started his prison term in 1958.

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Conviction and Sentencing

Haggard was convicted of multiple counts of burglary and sent to one of the most notorious prisons in California.

San Quentin was known for housing violent offenders and death row inmates. However, Haggard managed to avoid trouble while incarcerated. Fellow inmates nicknamed him “Country” due to his love of country music.

Haggard was sentenced to serve between 2-3 years but was released early in 1960 after serving just 2 years. Although it was a short time, the prison experience changed Haggard’s life.

Merle Haggard Reflects on His Time in Prison

The experience of being locked up left a deep impression on Haggard. It forced him to reevaluate his life and the direction he was heading.

“Going to prison has ruined my life”- Merle Haggard

Haggard regretted his criminal past but also viewed the time as transformative:

“I was dumb and full of youthful energy and nonsense, and I thought I was the baddest dude in the world. The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn was to stop being a fool. I quit drinking whiskey, quit gambling, quit chasing women. It’s the smartest thing I ever did”- Merle Haggard

The long hours in his cell gave Haggard time to think about what he wanted to do with his life. He began writing songs and dreaming of a music career after his release.

Prison served as a turning point – Haggard was determined to leave his law-breaking days behind and make something of himself.

Haggard’s Music Career After Prison

Haggard left San Quentin in 1960 determined to turn his life around. He pursued a career in country music and caught his big break in 1962.

After his release, Haggard’s musical talent was clear. He worked as a bassist and began singing with the band at a Las Vegas club owned by Lefty Frizzell. His music impressed Capitol Records and Haggard signed with them in 1962.

Haggard worked tirelessly and released his first successful song “Sing a Sad Song” in 1963. It kicked off an amazing run of hits like “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “Branded Man,” and “Mama Tried.”

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The songs reflected Haggard’s life as an ex-convict but resonated with a wide audience. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, he topped the charts and cemented himself as a country legend. Haggard showed that redemption was possible and a prison stint didn’t have to define your life.

Haggard’s Crimes and Convictions

Here is a summary of Merle Haggard’s criminal offenses and incarceration:

1956Attempted robberyCounty jail time
1957-58Multiple burglaries2-3 years San Quentin Prison

Haggard spent a total of around 2 years imprisoned including his county jail stint and time in San Quentin from 1958-1960. The prison sentence set him straight and Haggard turned his life around when starting a country music career upon release.

Quotes About Haggard’s Redemption

Merle Haggard’s redemption story showed that someone’s past doesn’t have to define them. Here are some quotes about his profound transformation after prison:

“Merle Haggard was the living embodiment that redemption is possible”- Willie Nelson

“He turned 21 in San Quentin Prison and used that experience to transform himself. He channeled all of that darkness into something truly glorious”- Hank Williams Jr.

“That prison term shaped the rest of Haggard’s life. Without it, we may never have gotten to experience his incredible music.”- Garth Brooks

“What’s amazing is that he took those negative experiences and turned them into some of the most poignant songs ever written. He’s a testament to the human spirit.”- Dolly Parton

“Merle’s story gives hope that no matter how far you’ve fallen, you can always turn it around.”- Miranda Lambert

These quotes highlight how Haggard’s mistakes ultimately led him to country stardom. He proved that your past does not limit your future.

What crimes was Merle Haggard convicted of?

Haggard was convicted of a series of burglaries in California in his late teens and early 20s. His most serious conviction was for a string of restaurant break-ins that led to a 2-3 year sentence in San Quentin Prison from 1958-1960.

How long was Merle Haggard in prison?

In total, Haggard spent around 2 years in custody including time in county jail and San Quentin Prison. He served most of his sentence in San Quentin before being released early in 1960 at age 23.

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What did Merle Haggard go to prison for?

He went to the notorious San Quentin Prison due to multiple burglary convictions in the late 1950s. The break-ins were committed with an accomplice when Haggard was in his early 20s and still getting in trouble.

How did prison change Merle Haggard’s life?

The prison experience caused Haggard to deeply reflect and resolve to turn his life around. He emerged with a determination to pursue country music and leave his criminal past behind. It was a transformative event that shaped the rest of his life and career.

How did Merle Haggard turn his life around after prison?

When released from prison in 1960, Haggard pursued music seriously. He overcame his convictions by working hard and eventually becoming one of the biggest country stars of his era. Haggard left his lawbreaking days behind and prison helped motivate him to redeem himself.


In summary, Merle Haggard spent time in prison as a young man due to burglary convictions. His 2 years incarcerated at San Quentin Prison served as a crucial turning point in his life. Haggard left prison reformed and determined to make an honest career in country music.

He soon established himself as a major star in the “Bakersfield sound” era and one of country music’s greatest songwriters. Haggard’s life story and music resonated so profoundly because it represented overcoming your past struggles. His prison stint shaped the themes of redemption and resilience that made Haggard an icon.

Despite early run-ins with the law, the extraordinarily talented Merle Haggard turned his life around after doing time. Prison motivated him to pursue his passion and leave criminality behind. Haggard’s legacy will always be defined by how he emerged from a troubled start to achieve amazing success. His journey remains an inspiration, proving that where you begin in life does not have to dictate where you end up.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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