True to Life: Sam Rockwell Set to Lead Merle Haggard Biopic

We love musician biopics here, but when a bonafide acting force like Sam Rockwell is set to portray country music icon Merle Haggard, we have the making of an Oscar contender. According to Deadline, Amazon Studios has acquired the rights to tell the story about Merle Haggard, from San Quentin Prison on to his stage at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

The film will reunite Sam Rockwell with Director Robin Bissell, who directed Rockwell in The Best Of Enemies. Under her lead, Rockwell will help write the script with Merle Haggard’s widow, Theresa. The script will be largely based on his memoir, Sing Me Back Home.

Sam Rockwell is going to have plenty of source material to work with because the man behind the music lived enough for two lifetimes, including overcoming a prison record and life of petty crime. In addition, Rockwell is actually singing all of Haggard’s material!

Here’s just a glimpse of what we can expect to see Rockwell accomplish on his way to an Oscar (believe that…you heard it here, first).

Merle Haggard, The Boy

Credit: Everett Collection

While Merle Haggard is considered one of the seminal voices, songwriters, and historic personalities of country music, his life to get there was hardly one of luxury. That is where Sam Rockwell will take us.

As many musicians who get a biopic, Merle Haggard’s childhood wasn’t easy. His dad died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945, and from there, he became rebellious. His mother tried to help, but Haggard became reckless and destructive with his behavior.

The man who would be later known as “Hag” experienced several run-ins with the authorities for petty theft and forgery. Those offenses had him sent to a juvenile detention center at 13. A year later, he ran away from home by hitchhiking and freeloading on freight trains with his childhood friend, Bob Teague.

He had an inclination for music, teaching himself how to play guitar while listening to Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams albums. It was with Teague that he first played a gig in a Modesto, California bar. His pay? $5 and free beer.

During that time, young Merle Haggard was sent to multiple juvenile facilities for more theft and truancy until one night in 1951 when he and Teague went to hear Lefty Frizzell in concert. Hag sang with Frizzell backstage and was convinced he could pursue a career in music.

Then, he went to prison.

Merle Haggard, the Man

Merle Haggard as an adult, leaving prison behind for a career in music.
Credit: WorthPoint

Fate. Kismet. Karma. It’s all a funny thing, namely if you believe nothing happens without a reason. In 1957, Merle Haggard was married but destitute. Plagued with bills and riddled with fear, he tries to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse. Following an escape attempt from city jail, he was sent to San Quentin.

And that is where the reason happened.

A country music legend in the making was recording at San Quentin State Prison. There, a 20-year-old Merle Haggard met the man who would become his mentor, Johnny Cash.

“We were always humorous with each other. I criticized him one time for something he did, and he answered me, ‘Haggard, you have the ugliest face in country music.’ We had that kind of sense of humor back then.

But later I missed a couple of dates out in Oregon when I was 49 years old, and he and June called me and said, ‘What’s the matter, Haggard, did you get ahold of some bad dope?’ I said, “No.” He said, “What’s the matter?”

I said, ‘I’m 49 years old, Cash. I’m fixin’ to turn 50.’ He said, ‘Oh, my God. I wound up in rehab when I turned 50. I totally understand.’ … He helped me every time he had a chance to help me, and I would have done the same for him.”

Merle Haggard, Rolling Stone, 2016

Meeting Johnny Cash changed his life and set him on a course of a new life that would impact millions.

Merle Haggard, The Legend

Merle Haggard eventually became the voice of the working man in the late ’60s and early ’70s — and, again, Sam Rockwell is going to be that voice, speaking and singing.

Over Haggard’s storied career and fathering the “Outlaw Country” genre until the mid-2000s, Hag had 38 number-one hits on the U.S. country charts. Many of those have become country music staples like:

  • “Mama Tried” (1968)
  • “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” (1968)
  • “Workin’ Man Blues” (1969)
  • “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970)
  • “Yesterday’s Wine” with George Jones (1982)
  • “Pancho and Lefty” with Willie Nelson (1983)

As he tried to make something out of life in music, it took the state of California and a man who would be President of the United States to make something out of his life in general. Governor Ronald Reagan eventually pardoned all of Merle Haggard’s past crimes in 1972, expunging his entire criminal record.

Haggard died on April 6, 2016 of double pneumonia on his 79th birthday. If Sam Rockwell can get any of that dubious life right in film, we are going to see one of the most compelling biopics in recent memory. You don’t have to love his music. You do have respect his life and the “reason” this film is being made.


P.S. Merle Haggard was also a master impressionist of country vocalists. Maybe Sam Rockwell will do this too…

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