BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) — When I read that the late country music legend Merle Haggard grew up in a boxcar house, I perhaps took it a little too literally. As I wandered the grounds of the Kern County Museum on an early spring morning looking for Merle's childhood home, I expected to see an actual boxcar, maybe with some furniture inside. Instead, I found a little white wood paneled house across the way from a massive Southern Pacific train engine and Santa Fe caboose.
At first glance, the house looks like any other, so perfectly is the boxcar worked into the design. It's a testament to the carpentry skills of Haggard's father James, who added a front bedroom and a screened-in back porch that was later converted to another bedroom and breakfast nook. The boxcar comprises the bulk of the little house, including the kitchen, living room and bathroom.
A railroad man himself, James Haggard and his wife Flossie bought the old wooden Santa Fe ice boxcar in 1935 for $500 after relocating their family of four to Bakersfield from Oklahoma. They intended the boxcar to be a temporary home until they could build a larger one on their lot in Oildale, then a small, unincorporated town just north of Bakersfield, according to a 2017 article about the boxcar by The Bakersfield Californian.
Two years later, Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937. He grew up in the boxcar house with his parents, older brother James Lowell, and older sister Lillian, who caught young Merle keeping time to the radio while he was still in his bassinet.
When James Haggard died of a stroke in 1945, Merle's happy childhood came crashing down around him and his troubled youth began. At the tender age of 11, he hopped his first freight train and was escorted home by police. Undeterred, he kept skipping school to ride the trains, so his brother gave him his first guitar at age 12 as a distraction. Immediately entranced, young Merle taught himself to play the old Sears, Roebuck & Co. model by listening to records — and came to idolize Bob Wills.
His budding obsession with music didn't keep him on the right side of the law, though. After a stint in juvenile hall intended to straighten him out, he made a habit of running away from home with buddy Bob Teague, mixing up honest blue-collar work with petty crime and, on a notable occasion in 1953, singing on stage with another of his idols, Lefty Frizzell.
Even as he started making a name for himself in Bakersfield playing at clubs like The Blackboard and The Lucky Spot (which he sneaked into since he was underage), Haggard kept up his double-life of country music and crime until things came to a head in 1957. After a failed attempt at robbing a local café, Haggard was sentenced to 15 years in prison and shipped off to San Quentin, where he turned 21 in solitary confinement as prisoner A45200.
Losing his freedom forced him to take a long, hard look at his life, and he decided to turn it around. He got a job at the prison textile plant, played in a country music band and even got the equivalent of a high school diploma. After he was released on parole in 1960 he got a job working at The Lucky Spot, where he met his future manager Charles "Fuzzy" Owen.
Haggard saw moderate success with his initial releases on Tally Records, but got his first break in 1963 covering Wynn Stewart's "Sing A Sad Song," which climbed to #19 on the country charts. His breakthrough song "All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers" came a year later, not only hitting the Top 10 but convincing Capitol Records' Ken Nelson to sign him to the label.