Merle Haggard was one of country music’s most famous former convicts, though most of his crimes were petty. The reason he landed in the notorious San Quentin Prison was due to how many times he escaped from smaller facilities and local jails. But did he really escape 17 times as is claimed?
• The Country History X Podcast looks to tell the history of country music, one story at a time. It primarily lives here on Saving Country Music, on YouTube (see below and subscribe), and is also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Anchor, and most anywhere else podcasts can be found.
• A full transcript of the episode, as well as sources for the story can be found below.
• Though other sources were cross-referenced (see below), the main source on pinning down the “17” number and Merle Haggard is a new, definitive biography called The Hag: The Life Times, and Music of Merle Haggard by Marc Eliot that comes highly recommended.
Other Country History X Episodes:
Episode #13: Garth Brooks vs. The Super Bowl
Episode #12: Did Vern Gosdin Really Try to Murder His Producer?
Episode #11: The Lost Bloodline of Hank Williams, and the Search for Hank IV
Episode #10: Marty Robbins Saves Life of NASCAR’s Richard Childress
Episode #9: Country Music’s Most Important Artifact
There are many astounding numbers and statistics that accompany the legacy of country music legend Merle Haggard. There are his 38 No. 1 hits. There’s his 50-plus year career remaining relevant in country music. There are the 66 studio albums recorded, and the millions of records sold. But the one Merle Haggard statistic that perhaps intrigues people the most is that before his music career took off in earnest, Haggard was rumored to have escaped from jail an incredible 17 times during his troubled youth growing up near Bakersfield, California. 17 times!
It wasn’t the severity of Haggard’s offenses that ultimately found a judge sentencing Merle to serve hard time in one of California’s most notorious prison’s, San Quentin. It was an attempt to try and scare the petty criminal straight, and make sure he didn’t escape yet again.
But is this escape statistic truly to be believed? 17 times? Let’s do some digging through the public records, consult Merle’s memoirs, and use a new definitive biography on Merle to try to once and for all refute or verify if Merle Haggard really did escape incarceration and incredible 17 times.
– – – – – – – – – – – – –
Let’s first establish that the source of the information about Merle Haggard’s startling record of jail escapes is Merle Haggard himself. Along with talking about his numerous escapes in his memoirs, Merle told Vanity Fair in 2010 about being sent to San Quentin quote, “I wasn’t really that bad a guy. They just couldn’t hold me anywhere else. I escaped 17 different times, so they sent me there because I was an escape risk.” Unquote. Merle also made other similar statements over the years.
Before we get into just how much of a juvenile delinquent Merle Haggard was, let’s first try to answer why he’d chosen a life of petty crime. Born April 6th, 1937 in Oildale, California, which was considered the poor suburb of Bakersfield, Merle Haggard was raised in a house that had been built out of a converted boxcar by his genuine Okie parents who’d migrated from Oklahoma during The Depression.
Merle had two siblings, brother Lowell, and sister Lillie, but they were both significantly older that Merle. They were both teenagers by the time Merle was born, and were adults by the time he was in middle school. That made Merle the baby of the clan, and despite his mother Flossie Mae being a very devout Christian, both his mom and his dad James Francis Haggard tended to baby young Merle during his upbringing, allowing him much more latitude than they did his older siblings, even if they couldn’t really spoil him due to the poor conditions he grew up in.
Very early on, Merle began skipping school and starting mischief, but the rod was spared. Merle just had trouble paying attention or staying focused. These days, we’d say young Merle had ADHD. Also, while sitting on his father’s lap listening to the radio, Merle found favor early on with the songs of the Singin’ Brakeman, and the man many consider the Father of Country Music, Jimmie Rodgers. His songs about riding trains, and tunes like “In The Jailhouse Now” instilled young Merle with a ramblin’ fever he would carry with him the rest of his life. Many people heard Jimmie Rodgers songs and enjoyed them as theater. From an early age, Merle wanted to live them out.
Haggard’s world was especially hit hard and turned upside down when his father died of a brain hemorrhage when he was just nine years old. Blaming himself for the death from a strange sense of guilt, and with his mother Flossie Mae left to try and wrangle him as a single mother who had to take a full time job to support the household, Merle quickly went astray. Yes, Merle Haggard’s life was very much like a country song.
At age 11, Merle Haggard broke the law for the first time when after school, he and his friend named Billy Thorpe filled pillowcases with some random supplies, and like hobos, jumped a freight train. Because the train car they tried to jump was locked, they had to hold onto the outside all the way to Fresno where they arrived freezing and scared. A yard bull security officer found them, and took the two boys into custody. Merle’s older brother Lowell drove their mom Flossie Mae to Fresno to retrieve the young boys, and Flossie convinced a Fresno detective to not press charges, saying that Merle’s father had worked for the railroad, which was true, and the boy was just taking after him. No charges were filed.
Much of Merle Haggard’s early run in’s with the law had to do with being picked up by truant officers for cutting classes at Oildale Standard Middle School. On one such occasion, Merle was caught trying to steal a car. He was never charged for the attempted auto theft, but he was expelled from school, and went to live with his aunt to attend Arvin Middle School south of Bakersfield. Merle dropped out almost immediately, and ended up back in Oildale.
When Merle was 14, he and one of his best friends name Dean Roe convinced two girls from school to hop a freight train with them to Las Vegas. Merle was reported to be quite a dashing young man, and of course quite dangerous, and was pretty good at convincing girls into just about anything. The girls came along, but the train they hopped ended up being bound for Los Angeles, not Las Vegas. When they got to Los Angeles, Merle stole a car in the train station’s parking lot, and they drove it all the way to five miles outside of Nevada before it ran out of gas. The parents of the girls had reported the two minor’s missing, and a officer found them all on the side of the road. Merle Haggard and Dean Roe spent a couple of weeks in jail—Merle’s first real stint behind bars. But there was no escape plot then, and eventually Merle and Dean Roe were let out on lesser truancy charges.
Merle’s first real escape came just a few days after the failed Las Vegas trip, and once again involved truancy. According to school records, Merle only spent 10 days in Bakersfield High School his entire freshman year. So trying to scare him straight, they sent Merle to one of California’s road camps. Not exactly prison, but definitely not freedom, road camps were set up for lesser criminals where they could earn moderate wages working on road construction around California while being housed and fed better than your average prison inmate. It still was no life for Merle though. He remained there for five days before sneaking out and stealing a car to return to Bakersfield.
After this first escape, this is when Merle says his real beginning of trouble with the law commenced. Police didn’t pursue Merle the escapee at first. They instead worked with the Bakersfield High school guidance counselor, Fred Robinson, to have Haggard assigned to the California Youth Authorities Juvenile Hall where hopefully he could be put back on the straight and narrow. The very first day there, Merle walked right out the front door and went back home to Oildale. This was his second official escape.
A free man once again, Merle and his friend and fellow guitar player Bob Teague decided to join the Marines while on a drunken bender. Bob Teague had already joined the Marines once when he was 14, and spent two years in service before they figured out he’d lied about his age and kicked him out. When the two didn’t show up for basic training, the FBI came looking for them. Lucky for Merle and Bob Teague though, they’d used fake IDs to enlist, so they were never found. Instead, the two hitchhiked to Texas to try and find Lefty Frizzell in Corsicana where he supposedly lived at the time. They made it the entire 1,500 miles to Texas only to find out that Lefty Frizzell had recently moved to Southern California where they had just hitchhiked from.
Making their way back from Texas to Los Angeles by once again hitchhiking, Merle and friend Bob Teague were in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood looking for a ride back to Bakersfield when two police cars and four officers surrounded them, guns drawn. After ruffing up the two teenagers, they took them to jail on suspicion of robbing a nearby liquor store. In this instance, it was a crime Merle Haggard did not commit. The cops told the two young men they were to be arraigned and would probably spent 15 years in prison. But after about a week languishing in jail, the real robbers were caught, and Merle and Bob Teague were let free.
Back in Bakersfield, Merle stayed out of trouble for only nine days before skipping school had the truant officer arresting him once again. This time Merle was sent to the Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility for Boys in Whitter, California on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It was more like a prison than a reform school, with bars on the windows, a barb wire fence around the yard, and a boot camp regimen. After being there for a month, Merle made his third escape while on a work detail clearing brush from a nearby field. He hid in the woods all night, and then the next morning tried to make for the highway. The police caught him almost immediately and he was sent back to the facility.
After doing his time in Whittier, Merle returned briefly to Bakersfield, but soon left for Modesto where friend Bob Teague was working in the fields. There, Merle Haggard worked odd jobs, and eventually played his first official gig at the age of 15 at a local club with Bob Teague in support. But after the gig, three guys waiting outside the bar jumped Merle and Bob, probably in a dispute involving women. The cops came by and arrested them all. Merle and Bob spent three days in jail before a judge let them free, and they returned to Oildale just in time for Thanksgiving. But before Merle could partake in any turkey, he was once again arrested by truant officers for the two months he’d spent in Modesto instead of in school.
This time Merle was sent to the Preston School of Industry, which looked like a castle, and was a former halfway house. There was little difference between Preston and a legitimate prison. Instead of reforming Merle, it officially criminalized him. The first time he was let out, he met up with another kid he’d met on the inside who was released the same day. The two committed a robbery, and assaulted a kid who reportedly had an emotional disability. It was arguably the first serious crime, and the worst crime of Merle’s criminal career. Haggard got picked up afterwards, and sent back to Preston for 15 months where he turned sixteen.
After this stint, perhaps Merle was rehabilitated to some extent, though it probably helped that he also had come of age where truant officers could no longer chase him around town. Either way, Merle’s criminal escapades were put on hold for a while, and he started putting the foundations of his career in country music together. Though the short version of the Merle Haggard origin story says he didn’t really start in music until he got scared straight in San Quentin Prison, he’d already started making a name for himself before hitting the big house.
Not long after being released from the Preston School of Industry, Haggard went to see Lefty Frizzell perform at The Rainbow Room in Bakersfield. Merle’s old friend and guitar player Bob Teague barged into Lefty’s dressing room with Merle in tow like he owned the place, and told Lefty he should hear this Merle kid sing. An impromptu audition transpired right there in the dressing room, and Frizzell was so impressed, he allowed the young Merle Haggard to go out and perform a couple of songs for the packed Rainbow Room crowd. Merle played a Jimmie Rodgers song and a Hank Williams song, and left the crowd wanting more. It was Merle Haggard’s first big break. Soon he started playing pick up guitar gigs in Bakersfield, including one for Tommy Duncan, as word of this singing and picking kid from Oildale began to spread.
Merle was working potato farms and oil fields by day, and playing occasional rhythm guitar gigs in Bakersfield’s hopping honky tonks at night. Now married young to his first wife Leona with a kid on the way, Merle was hanging out drinking with a friend of his named Dennis, when on a whim, they decided to steal a car for the fun of it, drive to Reno, and make it back before morning. They found a nearly new 1956 Olds 88, and took to the highway.
When Merle came up on two semis driving slow, he promptly passed them on the left. Between the two trucks was a California Highway Patrol officer. That’s why the trucks were driving so slow. Soon, Merle was standing in front of a judge that had obtained a copy of Merle’s rap sheet, which was mostly clean over the last couple of years, but still had a long list of priors. He sentenced Merle to a year in the Ventura County Jail. Merle didn’t escape, but he did get out a few months early for good behavior. He worked as a short order cook in the jail’s mess hall, and was let out on May 1st, 1957—a few weeks after his 20th birthday, and a month after the birth of his first child, a daughter named Dana.
Now back home and with an extra mouth to feed, Merle and some buddies cooked up a scheme to steal scrap metal from one scrap yard, and sell it to another. The first time they tried the ruse, they got caught, and Haggard was sentenced to 90 days at a road camp. After five days, he made what would be his fourth escape and hopped a freight train out of Bakersfield. That train took Merle all the way to Utah and other parts, and he continued to hop freight trains to here and there, knowing if he went back home he would end up in jail. He also reportedly had a rather harrowing experience when he got into a fight with some hobos over a can of peas. Eventually, Merle ended up in Eureka, California on the coast where he was arrested by local police who found his warrant, and he was returned to Bakersfield where he was ordered to serve the rest of his 90-day road camp sentence.
After being discharged from the road camp, Merle made his first demo recording, and presented it to the Bakersfield-based Tally Records, looking for his big break into country music. Being told he sounded too much like the current Bakersfield star Buck Owens, a dejected Merle thought his prospects for making it in music were over. So hearing about jobs in New Mexico and now with a second kid on the way, Merle decided to point his nose east once again.
But since Haggard didn’t have enough money to get to New Mexico, he decided to knock off a local Shell station where he’d once worked. Slyly switching out the locks of the station during the day, he came back that night wearing his old Shell uniform, and cleaned out the cash register, using the proceeds to purchase a used car for the New Mexico trip with a few buddies. He never worked in New Mexico though. By the time Merle and his buddies got there, the jobs were all gone. The buddies took off to Texas in the used car, and Merle hopped a freight train and headed back to Bakersfield.
Merle had made it back to California for Christmas Eve, and this is where his final and fateful crime occurred, and it was quite a comical one for everyone except Merle. While hanging out drunk with a buddy of his named Mickey, they decided to knock off a local restaurant called Fred and Gene’s Cafe. They drove to the restaurant and tried to jimmy the back door, only to find it 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 burglars out the front door, and they took off down the street. At the first stop sign, a highway patrolman pulled them over. Fearing he was heading back to jail, Merle jumped out of the car and sprinted for the train depot so he could hop a freight out of town, but no trains were running because it was Christmas Eve. The local depot deputy apprehended and arrested Merle. Meanwhile, the owner of the Shell station Merle had knocked off previously had put two and two together, and Merle was also now fingered as the perpetrator in that crime as well.
In the Bakersfield jail on Christmas Day awaiting arraignment, Merle waited for the right moment, and literally walked right out the front door. Perhaps in the Christmas spirit, the Chief of Police had forgotten to lock things down. This was officially Merle’s fifth escape from jail. When Merle made his way to 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.
Merle Haggard was shipped to the Chino Guidance Center where he spent seven weeks, including being evaluated by psychiatrists before appearing in court. Looking over Merle’s rap sheet, and specifically his history with escapes, the judge decided to throw the book at him. With his mother Flossie Mae in the audience hoping for leniency, the judge sentenced Merle Ronald Haggard to up to fifteen years in California’s most notorious maximum security prison, the big house, San Quentin.
This is where Merle hatched a would-be sixth escape attempt, if we’re to believe Merle’s account. Haggard worked in the prison’s furniture factory with a man named Jimmy “Rabbit” Kendrick who was in for bank robbery. Along with Merle’s cellmate named Sam, they hatched a scheme to hide in a large 1,500-pound judicial desk being made in the furniture factory. Once the desk was done and crated up, they would be shipped with the desk to outside of San Quentin’s walls to San Francisco where it was bound.
Nobody had escaped from San Quentin for 13 years prior. But as the day of the escape came closer, Merle got cold feet. He eventually was given guitar privileges in prison, and would regularly play for his fellow inmates who helped convince Haggard he could be a country star once he was released—a fate Merle couldn’t fulfill if he escaped and remained a wanted man.
According to Haggard, his friend Rabbit eventually went through with the escape attempt successfully. Two weeks after his escape, Rabbit shot and killed a highway patrolman named Richard Duvall, and was returned to San Quentin with a death sentence. Jimmy “Rabbit” Kendrick was put to death on November 3rd, 1961 according to prison records, and in his memoirs, Merle states that it was one of the most vivid memories of his entire life, watching his friend being led from his Death Row cell to the gas chamber. Merle also gives the experience credit for changing his entire perspective on life.
However, Merle was actually released from San Quentin a year before Rabbit’s execution on November 3rd, 1960. So either Merle’s memory is wrong, or the prison records are. What’s for sure is the incident had a profound effect on Merle. The question is if he actually witnessed it first hand, or if he got it mixed up with another friend he made on the inside, Caryl Chessman, who was a famous Death Row inmate who wrote four books, and is one of the few American inmates ever executed who never committed murder himself. Haggard met Chessman when they were both in solitary confinement and spoke to each other through a ventilation shaft. Chessman was executed on May 2nd, 1960. The execution of both Chessman and Jimmy “Rabbit” Kendrick became the inspiration for Merle Haggard’s song “Sing Me Back Home.”
Of course, another huge inspiration Merle Haggard received while at San Quentin is when Johnny Cash came to play on New Year’s Day, 1960. Often this date is represented wrong in country history as 1959. Johnny Cash did play San Quentin in 1959 as well, but Haggard at that time did not have the right privileges to be able to attend. It wasn’t until 1960 when Haggard could sit in the audience, and see his future friend perform.
Before the performance, Haggard had always thought of Cash as kind of corny. But afterwards, that all changed. Haggard recalls that Cash quote, “chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards, everything the prisoners wanted him to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. I became a Johnny Cash fan that day. He had the right attitude.” Unquote. And appreciate, this was nearly a decade before Johnny Cash’s famous live albums from San Quentin and Folsom Prison.
Once out of San Quentin, there was one more final brush with the law for Merle, and it could have meant the end of his career before it ever officially began. Right about the time Merle had finally found the favor of Fuzzy Owen, who was the steel guitar player and co-owner of Tally Records who signed Merle to his first record deal, Haggard got caught shoplifting at a liquor store. If charges were pressed, Merle could have gone back to San Quentin for the rest of a 15 years sentence since he was officially only out on parole. Luckily though, Fuzzy Owen stepped in, and quote/unquote “worked it out” with the store owner, keeping the cops out of the matter.
In some respects, you could possibly consider the shoplifting incident Merle’s sixth escape, or consider some of the other incidents where he evaded punishment or incarceration escapes from justice as well. But combing through the different criminal enterprises of Merle Haggard’s somewhat bumbling criminal career, it’s conclusively impossible to get to 17 actual escapes, whether they were from road camps, juvenile detention centers, jail, or prison.
So where does that 17 number come from? The number 17 does add up to the amount of criminal enterprises Merle Haggard got caught up in during his young adult life. Again, maybe you could say he quote/unquote “escaped” because he never faced any serious consequences, San Quentin notwithstanding. But the number of actual escapes is closer to the single digits.
This isn’t to call Merle Haggard a liar, or anyone else. SavingCountryMusic.com, where Country History X emanates from reported on Merle Haggard’s 17 escapes numerous times over the years without investigating it further either. Lots of media outlets and historical accounts have. It’s more a symptom of Merle Haggard mis-remembering things, and maybe a little bit of embellishment, which hey, is littered throughout country history. It was really the 2022 definitive biography called The Hag: The Life, Times, and Music of Merle Haggard written by Marc Eliot that has helped put Merle Haggard’s escapes in context, and has fingered that “17” number as the entries on Haggard’s rap sheet.
But this should in no way diminish Merle Haggard’s mystique. Merle Haggard did live a life of petty crime, did do hard time, along with hopping trains and hitchhiking rides that all led to him being able to write and sing all those songs from a first-person perspective. We would have never heard songs like “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” if it wasn’t for Merle’s wayward youth. But he also didn’t really ever do anything that would be so morally reprehensible that it would rise to be a strike against his overall character and be irredeemable, especially considering how as soon as his career took off, Merle put his criminal past behind him for good.
On March 14, 1972, then Governor of California and soon President of the United States Ronald Reagan officially pardoned Merle Haggard for all of his past offenses. Though Merle wasn’t facing any real legal jeopardy at the time, the pardon did help him with things like leaving the country on tour and such, and Merle was always appreciative for it. As some like to point out, Merle’s middle name was Ronald, so the two shared that as well.
In 2015, Merle Haggard also received an honorary diploma from Bakersfield High School, even though as has been documented, he barely attended class at all, and Haggard’s truancy is what helped lead to his life of crime.
But despite his criminal past, Merle Haggard went on to become a role model for many Americans, and for people with troubled pasts around the world. From a dirt poor upbringing during The Depression by Okie parents, to a petty life of crime, to one of the most important artists in country music ever, Merle Haggard embodies the country music redemption story. He rose from the ashes, fought off his own demons, and despite his early trespasses, left this world a better place than how he found it. The life of Merle Haggard was country music incarnate.
The Hag: The Life Times, and Music of Merle Haggard – Marc Eliot – January 18th, 2022
My House of Memories: For the Record – Merle Haggard and Tom Carter – April 2nd, 2002
Sing Me Back Home – Merle Haggard – October 1st, 1981
“Merle Haggard Has Some Helpful Prison Advice for Lindsay Lohan” – Vanity Fair – Eric Spitznagel – July 30th, 2010