Country music great Merle Haggard dies at 79
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Merle Haggard, the working man’s poet, an architect of the Bakersfield Sound and an artist who influenced country music like few others, died Wednesday, his 79th birthday.
The “Okie From Muskogee” and “Mama Tried” singer was at home in Palo Cedro, California, and surrounded by family, the Bakersfield Californian reported, citing an anonymous source close to the musician. Haggard’s manager, Frank Mull, said the singer died of pneumonia.
Last month Haggard canceled a series of concerts to concentrate on his pneumonia fight.
Over the course of his half-century career, Mr. Haggard recorded 40 No. 1 country singles, and wrote some of the genre’s most revered classics, which have been recorded by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, the Byrds, Vince Gill, the Grateful Dead, and countless others.
Mr. Haggard’s life, which took him from a San Quentin prison cell to the Country Music Hall of Fame, was a truly American success story. “In some ways, his life sounds like fiction, but if it were fiction, no one would believe it,” said Harris on the night of his Hall of Fame induction.
Born to Oklahoma migrants James and Flossie Haggard on Apr. 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, California, Merle Ronald Haggard was the youngest of three children. The Haggard family lived in a converted railroad car in Oildale, California, and while they were poor, they weren’t destitute like many of the Okies who went west.
After his father died of a stroke in 1946, Merle started getting into trouble. At the age of 10, he hopped his first train with a friend, and made it to Fresno before he got caught. The rebellious young man spent time in juvenile facilities and reform schools over the next several years, but he also fell in love with music, and began learning to play guitar. He was captivated by country artists like Lefty Frizzell, Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, and “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band”: The Maddox Brothers and Rose.
When Mr. Haggard was 21, he was sent to San Quentin State Prison following a burglary attempt. While imprisoned, he saw country star Johnny Cash perform for the inmates, played in the prison band, and worked in the San Quentin textile mill. Upon his 1960 release, Mr. Haggard — who was by then married to his first wife, Leona Hobbs, with whom he’d have four children — was determined to turn his life around.
Mr. Haggard’s days were filled with labor — ditch digging and electrical work — but his nights belonged to music. He got involved in the Bakersfield country music scene alongside up-and-coming artists like Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart. Two thousand miles away in Music City, the Nashville Sound was full of lush string arrangements, but the sounds coming out of Bakersfield were harder, twangier and absolutely irresistible. After a short stint playing bass for Owens, Mr. Haggard joined Stewart’s band.
In 1962, he released his debut single, “Skid Row.” His second single, “Sing Me a Sad Song,” was written by Stewart. It became Mr. Haggard’s first Top 20 hit for Tally Records, a small label co-founded by Fuzzy Owen, who’d spend several decades as Mr. Haggard’s manager.
While working the bar and club circuit, Mr. Haggard recorded “Just Between the Two of Us,” a duet with future wife Bonnie Owens, and “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” which captured the attention of Capitol Records’ Ken Nelson, who signed him and Owens to the label.
When they met, Bonnie Owens was the bigger name, but Mr. Haggard’s fame soon eclipsed hers. They married in 1965 and she spent years helping to raise his children and singing backup for him as part of his band The Strangers. After they divorced, Owens continued to work with Mr. Haggard, and even served as a bridesmaid when he married Leona Williams in 1978.
From the mid-1960s through the ’70s, Mr. Haggard released one top-notch song after another, a string of hits that are now an integral and beloved part of the country music canon. Many topped the charts, beginning in 1965 with his first No. 1 single, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”
Other songs that weren’t released as singles, including “Today I Started Loving You Again” (perhaps the Haggard song most-covered by other artists) and “Irma Jackson,” about an interracial romance, display Mr. Haggard’s depth as an artist.
“I’m the first to admit the English language is not my specialty,” Mr. Haggard wrote in the preface to his 1999 autobiography “My House of Memories.”
In 1969, Mr. Haggard released a career-changing song, “Okie From Muskogee.” Co-written with Roy Edward Burns, it spent four weeks atop the country charts and crossed over to the pop charts as well. “Okie” was followed by another hard-nosed single, 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (1987) was Mr. Haggard’s last single to top the charts.
Throughout his career, Mr. Haggard wore his influences on his sleeve. He released tribute albums honoring two of his favorite artists, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, and his 1983 version of “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which was co-written by another artist he admired, Lefty Frizzell, spent 21 weeks on the charts and earned him a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Just as Mr. Haggard studied the works of his musical heroes, contemporary acts look to him: stars like George Strait and Miranda Lambert have cited him as influences, and Eric Church recorded a song called “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.”
Mr. Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. During his induction speech, he unfurled a five-foot-long list of people he wanted to thank, beginning with, he deadpanned, his plumber. That year, Haggard’s single “In My Next Life,” peaked at No. 58 on the charts.
Though country radio didn’t seem to have much use for Mr. Haggard during the Hot New Country era of the 1990s, by the end of the decade, he was poised for a comeback. He began cranking out albums, including two for punk label Anti- in 2000 and 2001: a bluegrass record, “Kickin’ Out the Footlights … Again” with George Jones, and “Last of the Breed,” a double-disc album with Willie Nelson and Ray Price.
Mr. Haggard did experience a small setback in 2008 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. After recovering from surgery in which a piece of his lung was removed, he resumed rambling, playing 100+ shows per year.
Performing was where he felt most at home: In 1986, Mr. Haggard told Patrick Carr of Country Music magazine, “Probably the happiest moments of my life have been on a stage. … The stage is a refuge for me, and it always has been. Over the years, I’ve climbed inside my music when things went wrong. I still do that. My music is where I really live.”
In 2010, Mr. Haggard traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, which are given to those in the performing arts for their contributions to American culture.
His last solo album, “Working in Tennessee,” was released in 2011, and in 2015, he released two more collaborative albums: one with legendary country/bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman, and “Django and Jimmie,” with Willie Nelson. The latter featured the two legends meditating on their mortality with songs like “Live This Long” and “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” but they still made room for humor with the record’s lead single, “It’s All Going to Pot.”
From the Nashville Tennessean