Merle Haggard got his due this weekend. Already a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, he received a Kennedy Center Honor alongside Oprah Winfrey, Sir Paul McCartney, choreographer Bill T. Jones and Broadway lyricist Jerry Herman.
It’s a bit ironic — Merle was the first country artist to perform at the Kennedy Center just six days after it opened in September 1971. Still, he’s not the first country artist to receive one of the Honors named after the venue. He’s been preceded by George Jones, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff and Willie Nelson.
Even before Sunday’s formal public ceremony, there was a formal dinner Saturday at the State Department in Washington, D.C. Hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it had a guest list that featured Steven Tyler, Julia Roberts, Kid Rock, Norah Jones, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury and Kris Kristofferson, who hailed Merle for conducting his career “with humor, humility and the grace of a remarkable human being.,” according to The Washington Post.
In the meantime, Merle was connected in The Post’s coverage to several politicians with a national presence. First, there was Richard Nixon, the former president who invited Merle to play the White House in 1973 for a birthday party for First Lady Pat Nixon. Then, there was President Ronald Reagan, who — while serving as California governor in 1972 — pardoned Merle for a 1957 robbery that got him locked up in San Quentin for three years.
That pardon was the best award Merle says he ever received, though it didn’t prevent future brushes with the law. In fact, it turns out that a couple of hunters showed up on his property in 2006 and fired shots toward his ranch house. Theresa Haggard fired a warning shot of her own into the air, chasing the hunters off. But they called the police, and Theresa was arrested. Because of Merle’s criminal past, he was not allowed to own a gun. He wasn’t arrested for the incident, and in the aftermath, the third of those nationally recognized politicians changed that.
Merle’s “second best award,” he told The Post, “was [when] Arnold Schwarzenegger gave me a second pardon.”
That pardon came in 2009, restoring his legal right to bear arms. You can view it here.
The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast as a CBS special Dec. 28.