As far as journeys to country music stardom go, Merle Haggard’s is by far one of the most interesting.
It’s well-documented that he succumbed to a life of petty crime before his country music career took off, going in and out of reform schools, jails, and correctional facilities, until he finally landed himself in San Quentin State Prison.
San Quentin is where he eventually heard a live concert from Johnny Cash, a pivotal moment that he credits with influencing him to clean up his act and seriously pursue a career in country music full time.
According to Saving Country Music, Merle was arrested on Christmas Eve in 1957, after him and his friend Mickey got drunk, and decided to rob a local restaurant in Bakersfield, California.
They were under the impression the restaurant was closed for the holidays, however it was full of staff and customers. Merle and Mickey were chased out and eventually arrested.
When Merle broke out of the Bakersfield jail (which he had quite the knack for doing), the judge slapped him with 15 years in San Quentin State Prison (Merle famously said it was the only prison that could hold him).
Of course, he was paroled after just two and a half years for good behavior in 1960, and armed with a fresh perspective, his pursuit of a career in country music began.
However, it was more than 10 years later, on this date in 1973, when California Governor Ronald Reagan finally pardoned him for his crimes.
Haggard weighed in on the situation in an interview with CMT, following Reagan’s death in 2004. It’s clear from Merle’s words about Reagan that he had a profound impact on both his life and his career:
“He gave me a second chance at life in the form of the pardon he gave me.
And, in knowing his condition with Alzheimer’s and all that, in the last 10 years, 10-plus years, the relief that I felt for Nancy all came rushing in at once, I guess.”
He added that the pardon felt like a weight being lifted off his shoulders, and he found a new career-changing sense of confidence:
“Yeah, it really did. You can imagine yourself, you know… you got this tail hanging on you, and suddenly you don’t have it anymore. 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, with 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.”
Merle finally got the chance to thank Ronald and Nancy in person years later in 1982:
“Yes, I played for the president when he was at his ranch in California. He had a party on the ranch… and I played for him. I had a chance to thank him personally for the pardon, meet Nancy, and have dinner with him.
I sat on the right-hand chair next to the president, so I felt really honored. He treated me like royalty.”
From a life of petty crime, to getting locked up in San Quentin State Prison, to becoming a country music star, to playing for the President of the United States… Merle’s journey is as legendary as his place in country music.
And believe it or not, you can watch the entire performance at Rancho Sierra Grande right here.