50 Years Ago: Ronald Reagan Pardons Merle Haggard
It’s one of the most legendary origin stories in country music history. Merle Haggard from Bakersfield, California was engaging in a life of petty crime while trying to make it as a guitar player and singer until he committed one petty crime too many, and a judge threw the book at him.
It was Christmas Eve 1957, and while hanging out drunk with a buddy of his named Mickey, Merle decided to break into a local Bakersfield restaurant called Fred and Gene’s Cafe to try and scrounge up some money for his family. Merle and Mickey drove to the restaurant and tried to jimmy the back door, only to find the door was already opened. Darting inside, they started figuring out what to steal when they discovered the restaurant was still open, and full of patrons and employees.
The owner chased the would-be drunken and bungling burglars out the front door, and they jumped in their car and took off down the street. At the first stop sign, a highway patrolman pulled them over. Fearing he was heading to jail, Merle jumped out of the car and sprinted for the train depot so he could hop a freight train out of town, but no trains were running because it was Christmas Eve. The local depot deputy apprehended and arrested Merle.
In the Bakersfield jail on Christmas Day awaiting arraignment, Merle waited for the right moment, and literally walked right out the front door of the jail. This was officially Merle’s fifth escape from jail during his criminal career. When Merle made his way to his older brother Lowell’s house, the police were there waiting in the weeds, threw the cuffs on him, and this time made sure there was no escape.
It wasn’t the severity of the crimes, but Merle’s multiple escapes from custody that made a judge decide to send Merle to California’s most notorious maximum security prison, the big house, San Quentin, where Merle was sentenced to serve up to 15 years. He was transferred to the prison on February 21, 1958. Luckily for Merle and the rest of us, Merle’s stay in San Quentin scared him straight, and after 2 1/2 years of good behavior (and watching Johnny Cash perform at the prison in 1960), Merle was paroled.
Merle remained a convicted criminal though, and even as his country music career took off, his past haunted him, both as an ugly reminder of past transgressions, and also just as a logistical nightmare. When traveling out of the country or in other certain circumstances, Merle had to declare his legal history. But that all changed on March 14th, 1972 when the California Governor Ronald Reagan officially pardoned Merle Ronald Haggard for all past crimes.
Merle Haggard called March 14th, 1972 the second most significant day in his life. The first was the day that his dad died when he was only nine. Friends and family members of Merle who were working on the pardon kept the effort secret from him until it was made official. When he found out, the otherwise reserved country singer was downright euphoric.
“Well, you can imagine yourself, you got this tail hanging on you, and suddenly you don’t have it anymore,” Merle said about the pardon. “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, while 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. He didn’t have to do that. He could have just snubbed his nose and went on to lunch.”
And though Merle Haggard’s celebrity status most certainly helped secure the pardon—as did the fact that once he left San Quentin, he put his legal escapades behind him (well, at least mostly)—there actually was a legitimate legal case that Merle had not received proper legal representation, and unfair punishment.
“People who were in a position to examine my case, found that I was improperly convicted and had no representation because I was poor and things of that nature,” Merle recalled. “Twelve [state] supreme court justices and Governor Ronald Reagan found it right to pardon me. God, it meant everything. He gave me a second chance.”
Merle Haggard looked forward to meeting Ronald Reagan personally, and thanking him for the pardon. He got his opportunity ten years later, when Reagan was President of the United States. Reagan invited him to his Sierra Grande Ranch in California in 1982.
It was Merle Haggard’s harrowing upbringing as a poor kid of Okie parents, and his life of petty crime that put such meaning behind songs such as “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Mama Tried.” It was Ronald Reagan’s pardon that put him on the path to becoming one of America’s most revered poet laureates, eventually being graced as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient.
March 14, 2022 @ 11:30 am
Great article. And a good reminder of the sometimes bipartisan nature of politicians and how they are cartoonishly one-sided as many try to paint them. In my opinion, Merle Haggard is the greatest country music icon ever. There is a certain weight to Merle’s songs, not to mention that he wrote nearly all his 38 1#’s hits.
March 14, 2022 @ 6:53 pm
Ronald was Merle Haggard’s middle name!
Martha Sue Taylor
March 14, 2022 @ 9:49 pm
Merle Haggard was definitely a true to life singer. His songs were sincere & from his bad experienced. He modeled himself after Johnny Cash in a lot of ways because he said he was listening to Johnny Cash perform. Merle was do talented & had a lot of Karishma plus great looking too♥️ Rest in Peace 🙏🏼
March 14, 2022 @ 11:36 am
Reason #1,184 that Ronald Reagan was the greatest President (and governor) of the 20th Century.
March 14, 2022 @ 11:47 am
Best president of this century? Lmfao
March 14, 2022 @ 12:05 pm
This is the 21st century. Donald J. Trump holds the distinction for best president of this century (so far).
March 14, 2022 @ 2:36 pm
What the fuck?
March 14, 2022 @ 3:13 pm
Donald Trump is the worst president, but even a worst human being.
March 14, 2022 @ 2:38 pm
Yes. His handling of the Covid crisis and coordination of the 1/6 Insurrection after he LOST the election was indeed masterful.
But what did that disgraced former President have to do with Merle’s well-deserved pardon which is what this article is about?
March 15, 2022 @ 9:54 am
More people died of COVID-19 under Benedict Biden than Trump. Despite Biden saying no one who left that many people die of COVID should be president.
TDS strikes again!
March 15, 2022 @ 10:07 am
After coordinating a program to vaccinate the entire country (which was not even begun under Dirty Donny’s watch and delayed the entire process) millions of lives were saved. Our current President never said the virus would magically disappear or suggest that people should inject themselves with disinfectant. Thousands of people who refused to be vaccinated caused their own demise.
But what did that disgraced former President have to do with Merle’s well-deserved pardon which is what this article is about?
March 15, 2022 @ 10:13 am
Not getting into COVID-19 discussions here folks.
Countryknight, you know this is out-of-bounds here. Please help keep these comments sections civil.
March 18, 2022 @ 11:19 am
March 5, 2023 @ 12:42 pm
I usually don’t comment on these but I’m curious why Joe Biden does not get the credit he deserves. He stood his ground his whole life as U.S. senator, V.P. and now as president and stood up to Putin and the Russian corruption. That takes a lot of courage that Trump clearly lacked when faced with the same situation. You know if weren’t for Biden standing his ground and standing up to Putin and his bullying, often times addressing Putin directly (which all presidents before him failed at) we would’ve likely been in the wastelands of nuclear wreckage right now.
March 5, 2023 @ 2:17 pm
Putin isn’t the evil enemy you’ve been blindly led to believe he is. And the fact that you still believe the medias bullshit a full year later is extremely disturbing. If you support all our billions of tax dollars being sent to Ukraine, the most corrupt government in Europe, then be my guest. But I want my money back.
March 14, 2022 @ 2:48 pm
Skipped history lessons, did you, Froggie?
What day is it?
What month is it?
What year is it?
What CENTURY is it?
March 14, 2022 @ 3:16 pm
Folks, I understand that there is a political ,and a Presidential angle to this story. But it’s being highlighted for the musical component. If all this comments section is going to be is people saying anyone who didn’t vote for the same President as they did is stupid, I’m just going to close it down. Would be great to hear people’s thoughts on Merle Haggard, and a moment he saw as monumental in his life.
March 17, 2022 @ 7:00 am
Merle Haggard’s story is a great example of turning your life around
March 18, 2022 @ 11:19 am
March 14, 2022 @ 11:37 am
That was the only thing Ronald Reagan did right in that joke of a presidency of his, was to pardon Merle haggard.
March 14, 2022 @ 1:41 pm
“That was the only thing Ronald Reagan did right in that joke of a presidency of his, …”
What did President Reagan do that was a joke?
Back it up.
Mr. Haggard was certainly grateful for the pardon he received, and the personal invitation to the Reagan’s ranch. Happy that the Reagan’s invited him over.
Very happy that Mr. Haggard made great music, which has been, & is still being enjoyed the world over.
March 14, 2022 @ 2:22 pm
Reagan did it when he was Governor of California–about 9 years before he became President.
March 14, 2022 @ 2:50 pm
What is it about you liberals that makes you not be able to read, or to know the difference between a governor and a president?
March 15, 2022 @ 3:49 am
Their thoughts are driven by pure emotion. No logic or critical thinking.
March 15, 2022 @ 5:21 am
March 30, 2022 @ 8:46 pm
Despite his nickname, Merle never actually lived in Muskogee, or actually, Oklahoma at all. His parents however, had moved from Checotah, Oklahoma, 23 miles from Muskogee, to Central California, a couple years before Merle was born (in a remodeled railroad boxcar). Merle got the nickname because his single biggest hit was titled “Okie from Muskogee.” It was the title track from his album of the same name. He thought of the song when he was on tour in the late 60’s, driving though Oklahoma, and saw a highway sign for the town. It’s also considered his most famous and “signature” song. Merle was a juvenile (and young adult) delinquent, and was in the audience as an inmate when Johnny Cash played San Quentin prison on New Year’s Day, 1959. (For reference, that was 33 days before Buddy Holly died.) It inspired Merle to both get his life together and play music (which he knew), seriously. Darker inspiration came from fellow con James “Rabbit” Kendrick a year later. Kendrick had an escape plan and, inviting Haggard to come with him, also cautioned him against it. So did several other prisoners. Impressed by Haggard’s musical ability Kendrick told him to stick with it and serve his time: “You can sing and write songs and play guitar real good. You can be somebody someday.” Kendrick was right about Haggard, both were right about Haggard’s decision not to go along. Kendrick did escape in February, 1961, shipping out of San Quentin in a packing crate. His period of liberty lasted only two weeks before he shot and killed California Highway Patrolman Richard Duvall and was recaptured. He was given the death penalty and went to the electric chair eight months later. Merle was paroled 3 months before Kendrick’s successful escape attempt. He was so successful as a singer, that at one point, for three years in the late 60’s, he literally had a number-one hit, EVERY four months. Between 1981 and 1985, Haggard again scored 12 more top-10 country hits, with nine of them reaching number one. In his career he had an incredible THIRTY number-one hits. As mentioned, California Governor Ronald Reagan eventually gave Merle a full pardon for his crimes in 1972. Merle is one of two country artists closely associated with Bakersfield, Ca.. The other is Buck Owens. Merle played for a time in Buck’s band. In 1965, he married Buck’s ex-wife. (They stayed married for 13 years.) And although Merle was thought of as “quintessentially Bakersfield,” (where he did reside for years), Merle actually lived hundreds-of-miles North, in Palo Cedro, California, for decades until his death. Fly high Okie.
February 27, 2023 @ 8:06 pm
People should be reminded that in many ways Merle Haggard was very liberal in many ways. He even wrote a song about Hillary, endorsing her. So clearly he didn’t like Trump. Plus, let’s face it “Okie From Muskogee” was satire and often sung with Willie Nelson that is clearly on the left, politically. But all this shouldn’t take away that Haggard was a great singer who was loved by many, including me. I read a lot about him over the years. Great guy. One minute we are liberal and the next conservative, depending on how the wind blows.God Bless the USA that we can think the way we want.
March 15, 2022 @ 10:02 am
Besides winning the Cold War, yeah.
Mac Sledge's Revenge
March 14, 2022 @ 11:52 am
Related… Marcus King and Billy Strings do a great cover of Lonesome Fugitive:
March 14, 2022 @ 3:31 pm
I watched some of that session last week… excellent!
March 14, 2022 @ 2:28 pm
At least he didn’t pardon Merle’s Kern County neighbor–Spade Cooley.
March 14, 2022 @ 2:49 pm
Cooley brutally tortured and murdered his wife. Not a crime that was deserving of a pardon.
March 14, 2022 @ 5:48 pm
Except that had he not had a heart attack and died, he would’ve been pardoned by Reagan.
March 14, 2022 @ 7:14 pm
And you know this for a fact how?
March 14, 2022 @ 4:58 pm
But for Ronald Reagan, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music would have been sung in Russian!!
March 14, 2022 @ 5:15 pm
Reagan & Gorbie, (Gorbachev).
Interesting history with these two.
Betting both these men would have welcomed a live audience with Haggard.
March 15, 2022 @ 10:25 am
Why would country music in the U.S. ever be sung in Russian? That makes no sense as the U.S. was never in danger of a Russian invasion or takeover.
Back to the topic. As the article mentioned Merle’s pardon lifted a cloud over his life and career and it made his life immeasurably better. He had served his time and paid his debt. He lived an admirable life after his release. It was appropriate that he was rewarded for getting his life back on track and becoming a country music icon. Although Reagan rightfully deserves due credit for issuing the pardon it’s likely that a Governor of either political party at that time would have done likewise as Merle truly deserved it.
March 14, 2022 @ 6:15 pm
Cool story and cool photo. I will always regret turning down tickets to see Merle a few months before he passed. I’ve seen some legends, but missing some opportunities to see he, Waylon and Jerry Reed are at the top of my regret list.
March 14, 2022 @ 6:40 pm
I really love Merls music. It cuts to the heart because that is where it comes from.
March 14, 2022 @ 7:52 pm
Two men I love greatly, who both contributed mightily to my upbringing, as far as influences go: Reagan in my political philosophy, and Merle in my appreciation of country music. Great story. And it was great they spent a little time together as well, despite what differences they might have had. People used to do that. John Wayne once accepted an invitation to the White House from LBJ, and they got along alright. Aside from support for the Vietnam War, they really had not much in common.
March 15, 2022 @ 10:00 am
March 14, 2022 @ 9:40 pm
I love Merle Haggard month!
How about a playlist?
March 15, 2022 @ 11:11 am
Listen to the entire album Big City
March 14, 2022 @ 10:05 pm
Interesting that some comments I agreed with wouldn’t take my vote. Hummm.
March 15, 2022 @ 2:00 am
Liz Anderson wrote I’m A Lonesome Fugitive.
March 15, 2022 @ 8:45 am
Interesting bit of history. Doubt we’ll ever see the likes of Merle again.
March 15, 2022 @ 9:59 am
Informative post. I had no idea.
I’ve said this so many times, but God bless Ronaldus Maximus.
March 15, 2022 @ 11:12 am