“Contemporary” is a relative thing. Is Merle Haggard emblematic — iconic, even — of contemporary country music? Or classic? Outlaw? The Country Music Hall of Fame points out that Haggard was more honky-tonk than Nashville, but whatever niche you try to put Haggard in, odds are that he would break out of it eventually.
His youth really does sound like a country song, though. He was raised in a family that moved to California during the Great Depression, lived there in a converted boxcar, and had a father who worked for the railroads, but died when Merle was just eight years old. Four years later, the music bug started to nibble at Haggard, when his older brother, Lowell, passed along his used guitar to Merle, according to Rolling Stone, and Merle learned to play the instrument quickly. Despite this burgeoning talent, the primary reason that the death of Merle’s father is generally considered one of the major turning points in Haggard’s life is that, afterward, he basically turned into a juvenile delinquent: In and out of detention facilities, running away from home, hitchhiking cross-country, and hopping freight trains.