Merle Haggard has arguably one of the wildest stories when it comes to a start in country music.
Being in and out of prison for practically his whole younger life, he learned to play and write music while in prison, after being inspired by a Johnny Cash performance in San Quentin State Prison.
With that being said, there’s a pretty cool story from his biography The Hag, where his Lefty Frizzell impression got him on stage when he was just a kid.
According to Variety, Haggard was 16 years old, fresh out of the reformatory, when him and his buddy Bob Teague and started gigging together. Bob and Merle went to see Lefty Frizzell (who was coming to Bakersfield, Merle’s hometown) for a show at Rainbow Gardens.
Merle had been working on his Lefty Frizzell impression and thanks to a mutual connection, Billy Mize, Bob and Merle were able to get backstage and meet Lefty.
During intermission, knocked on Lefty’s dressing room door right before he was about to go on, and walked in like he was a member of the band.
Merle recalled Teague’s first meeting with Lefty:
“Bob asked lefty if he’d like to meet a guy who sang like he did. He said sure. So, I was brought in.”
Lefty handed him his guitar and Merle delivered an impressive cover of Lefty’s own “Always Late With Your Kisses,” which was so good, he wanted Merle to sing before he went on.
Needless to say, the promoter wasn’t happy with some no-name taking the stage, but Lefty insisted.
He then noticed Lefty’s lead guitarist Roy Nichols (who later became Merle’s longtime guitarist) who was already on stage, and without ever meeting him before, he said:
“Hey, Roy. My name’s Merle Haggard. I’m a picker and a singer. How’s it working for Lefty?”
The pissed off Roy responded:
“It ain’t worth a shit. This is my last night.”
He then proceeded to sing Jimmie Rodgers’s “My Rough and Rowdy Ways,” and Hank Williams’s “You Win Again,” as Lefty’s band members backed him up.
And Merle blew the roof off:
“They ripped the seats out… they loved it. And I was a nobody. I went right out in front of Lefty. Everything was against me, and everything went for me.”
Merle watched the rest of the show, and knew he wanted to be a singer
“I seen that and I knew that’s probably what I was going to do.”
Although, after that night, Merle found himself in trouble again and a burglary charged landed him in in San Quentin State Prison in 1957. He would only serve two years of his 15 year sentence, but while he was in there, he got to see a man named Johnny Cash perform in 1958… the moment that he decided to clean up his act for good and pursue country music.
And the rest is history.
Of course, Merle could do a number of impression including Buck Owens, Hank Snow, and even Johnny Cash.