Remembering Merle Haggard: Live On ‘Austin City Limits’ 1978

By Nate Todd Apr 6, 2021 10:51 am PDT

Merle Haggard sadly died on this date in 2016 from complications due to pneumonia. The legendary singer-songwriter was also born on this date, April 6, 1939, in Oildale, California near Bakserfiled after his family, like many families in the Great Depression, relocated to California from Checotah, Oklahoma.

In California, Merle’s father James Haggard worked for the Santa Fe Railroad and Merle literally grew up in a boxcar his father remodeled into a living space. The opening line of “Mama Tried,” “First thing I remember knowin’/Was that lonesome whistle blowin’” was probably a true statement. Merle’s working class upbringing gave him deep insight into the plight of working folks, something that he would highlight to great effect in his writing.

But another aspect of Haggard’s early life would also shade many of his songs, including the aforementioned “Mama Tried.” James Haggard tragically died from a brain hemorrhage in 1946 when Merle was just nine years old and his death naturally affected the young Haggard. His mother, Flossie Haggard, had to take a job and the idle and unwatched youngster began acting out.

The largely autobiographical “Mama Tried” speaks of a young man who “turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole.” While Haggard’s crimes were never that severe, he did spend a good deal of his teenage and early adult years incarcerated in (and escaping from) various correctional institutions including a final stint in San Quentin Prison where he would watch Johnny Cash perform in 1959. Seeing Cash coupled with one of his fellow inmates being executed spurred Haggard to turn his life around for good when he was paroled from San Quentin in 1960.

Haggard began playing music at 12 when his older brother gave him a guitar and country legends like Hank Williams, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzel influenced the young musician. Merle attended a concert of Frizzel’s in 1951. The country great heard Haggard singing backstage and refused to go on until Merle got a shot onstage. While his fledgling music career was slightly delayed by his incarcerations, Merle began pursuing his music in earnest after his release.

Hailing from Bakersfield, Merle naturally fell into The Bakersfield Sound, a response to what was seen as the overproduction of country music in Nashville. The sub-genre’s emphasis on a more genuine sonic interpretation of the subject matter fit Haggard well and he became one of its key figures. The end of the 1960s would see Haggard clocking No. 1 country hits like “Mama Tried,” “The Legend Of Bonnie And Clyde,” “Hungry Eyes” and “Sing Me Back Home” along with the masterful tune “Okie From Muskogee.”

Haggard’s star continued to rise throughout the 1970s and in 1978 he appeared with his band The Strangers on the legendary live music program Austin City Limits. The performance is bookended by two of Haggard’s blue-collared anthems: “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today” (the title track to his 1977 album) and “Workin’ Man Blues.” The performance also includes favorites like “Sing Me Back Home;” his first No. 1, “The Fugitive” (penned by Liz and Casey Anderson); a nod to his early influence Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys with “San Antonio Rose” and more.

To remember Merle Haggard, watch him perform with The Strangers on Austin City Limits in 1978 below via the JamBase Live Video Archive:

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