Merle Haggard, one of country’s most revered voices with an impressive catalog of standards like “Okie from Muskogee,” “Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Mama Tried,” and dozens more, died on Wednedsay, his birthday, his manager confirmed to the Associated Press. He was 79 years old.
He had been battling double pneumonia and had canceled a series of concerts in recent months due to poor health. Just last week, he canceled the rest of the shows he had slated for this year.
Born on April 6, 1937, Haggard’s early life was like an American myth. He was raised in Oildale, Calif., a Depression-era town where Midwestern migrants, desperate for a better fortune, hoped to start over. That included his family: Oklahoma farmers who arrived in the town three years before his birth, establishing roots in a converted boxcar. At nine-years-old, Haggard’s father died of a brain tumor. And by 14, he established an in-and-out pattern with local juvenile detentions, from which he frequently escaped, for crimes like petty theft and writing bad checks. Later, he quit school. Throughout most of his teen years, he hopped freight trains, roaming the Southwest and working various laborer jobs (driving a potato truck, working as a short order cook, digging ditches). Many of the characters that populate his songs, which fused Western Swing, honky tonk, and traditional roots elements, were inspired by this time. Among those characters were gypsies, farmers, blue-collar workers, widows, musicians, and alcoholics. His catalogue offers some of the most richly textured, vividly rendered country songs in history.
In 1957 at age 20, Haggard was arrested for breaking and entering a local roadhouse. He was originally sent to Bakersfield Jail but, after a failed escape attempt, was transferred to maximum security San Quentin State Prison. There, he sat in the audience as Johnny Cash played his first-ever prison concert to inmates on New Year’s Day, 1959. (Cash would record his famed San Quentin album there nine years later.) Haggard credits music as what saved him from continuing a life of crime. Shortly after his parole in 1960, he began playing lead guitar in a local Bakersfield country band. Cash and Haggard would remain close friends until Cash’s death in September of 2003.
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Prison and the men who populate their cells were long-running motifs for Haggard, most famously in “Mama Tried,” his first No.1 country song “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” and “Sing Me Back Home,” on which Haggard takes on the perspective of his fellow inmate Jimmy “Rabbit” Hendricks, with whom Haggard had intended to hatch a plot for prison escape. In that plot-gone-wrong, Hendricks killed a state trooper while fleeing and was put to death. On “Sing Me Back Home,” Rabbit wants his “guitar-playing friend” to sing him a favorite gospel tune before his execution.
Career-wise, Haggard, who pioneered the Bakersfield Sound, released his first single in 1963. It sold 200 copies. His second, “Sing Me A Sad Song,” fared better: it landed at No.19 on the Billboard Country Chart. His third landed him a record deal with Capitol. His star only rose higher from there and through the ’70s and ’80s, Haggard had a remarkable string of success, releasing 26 No.1 country singles. Every year, between 1966 and 1987, he had at least one Top Five country hit. In total, he notched 38 No. 1 country songs and released more than 65 albums.
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Perhaps Haggard’s most enduring tune was “Okie From Muskogee.” He released that track in 1969, three weeks after Woodstock, and largely as a protest of hippie values of the counterculture era. In it, he praises small-town values—while blasting hippies and war-protestors with lines like, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don’t take our trips on LSD / We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street / We like livin’ right and bein’ free.” It earned him a Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year Award and became his biggest hit at the time.
Haggard had plenty of industry accolades, too. In 1994, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. A longtime critic of the Nashville music business, Haggard’s acceptance speech began, “I’ve had 30 days notice. I’ve had notices for evictions. I had a guy call me up on a Monday and tell me he was gonna whip me on a Friday,” before he thanked characters like his plumber out in Incito, his bug man Mike, his chicken guard and frog man (also named Mike), and Reba McIntyre, who he spotted in the crowd. He ended it by saying, “I’m so proud to be a part of the Country Music Hall of Fame.” In 2010, Haggard received the Kennedy Center Award for lifetime achievement and his “outstanding contribution to American culture.”
In his later years, Haggard’s music focused heavily on his perceived decline of America. Songs like “Rebuild America First”, “What Happened”, “Where’s All The Freedom”, and “I’ve Seen It Go Away” expressed outrage at a country that had traded in its ideals and left civil liberties by the wayside. In a November 2005 interview with EW, the icon spoke of his hard-to-predict nature saying, “Somebody asked my mother, ‘Can you describe your son in a paragraph?’ She said, ‘I can in one word: Unpredictable.’” He continued, “I come by it honestly — but I also plan it. I intend to take a different route this morning than yesterday, and I’m not gonna leave at the same time. And I won’t worry about the next show until I get on stage.” With characteristically deft phrasing, he finished, “You might even trick the devil once in a while, if nobody knows what you’re gonna do.”
Haggard is survived by four children (Dana, Marty, Kelli, and Noel) from his first marriage to Leona Hobbs and two children (Janessa and Ben) from his fifth marriage. He was married to Lane from 1993 until his death.