Legendary Merle Haggard Passes At 79

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Merle Haggard. Photo: Myriam Santos

America has lost one of its greatest song poets.

Singer, songwriter, guitarist, fiddler, bandleader and music legend Merle Haggard died today on his 79th birthday, at his home outside of Redding, California.

One of the most influential and revered artists in music, Haggard was a permanent fixture on the country charts for three decades. He is a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also the recipient of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Kennedy Center honoree.

Perhaps no other singer-songwriter in contemporary country music has assembled as large a body of practically unblemished work. He stands almost alone in terms of artistic consistency, musical integrity, purpose and vision.

His songwriting achievements include such classics as “Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Hungry Eyes,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “If We Make It Through December,” “Big City” and “Today I Started Loving You Again,” among many, many others. His recorded legacy is vast and varied. He venerated blues, swing, pop, folk, gospel, honky-tonk, rockabilly and several other roots genres. Haggard respected country tradition and recorded tributes to Jimmie Rodgers (1969), Bob Wills (1970) and Elvis Presley (1977). He recorded with The Texas Playboys as well as with Mother Maybelle and The Carter Sisters, George Jones, Willie Nelson and Ernest Tubb.

MusicRow Podcast Featuring The Legendary Merle Haggard

“The Hag,” as he was known, placed 112 titles on the country charts, scored 71 top-10 hits and had 38 No. 1 successes. He recorded more than 90 albums.

Few stars have biographies as dramatic as Merle Haggard’s. His parents were “Okie” migrants to California during the Great Depression. He was born Merle Ronald Haggard on April 6, 1937 and raised in a converted railroad boxcar in Oildale, near Bakersfield, CA. His father died of a stroke when Haggard was nine, and his mother went to work fulltime to support the family.

Absent any parental supervision, Haggard became wild and rebellious as a youth, getting involved in petty theft, writing bad checks and riding the rails as a hobo. He was sent to juvenile-detention facilities and reform schools several times for shoplifting, truancy, robbery and other crimes, but this failed to curb his ways.

An encounter with Lefty Frizzell led him to start performing music professionally. A school dropout, he also worked as a teenage farmhand, oil field worker, truck driver and short-order cook.

Haggard was arrested in 1957 for attempted burglary and sent to San Quentin State Prison in California. He turned 21 in the penitentiary as convicted felon No. A-45200.

In 1958, he attended a prison performance by Johnny Cash, which deepened his commitment to a country career. One of his best penitentiary friends was executed on Death Row, and Haggard spent time in solitary confinement. These events all led him to turn his life around.

While locked away, Haggard took high-school equivalency courses. He also performed in the prison’s country band. He was paroled in 1960. For the rest of his life, he was haunted by memories and nightmares of his life in the penitentiary.

Upon his release, he dug ditches and worked as an electrician’s assistant. But he was soon entertaining in Bakersfield nightclubs and was signed by the independent imprint Tally Records. He debuted on the charts on that label with his 1963 version of Wynn Stewart’s yearning “Sing a Sad Song.” He scored his first top-10 hit in 1965 with songwriter Liz Anderson’s “(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers.”

The star named his award-winning band The Strangers as a salute to that hit in 1965. In that same year, Capitol Records picked up his recording contract. Capitol producer Ken Nelson took a “hands off” approach to Haggard and his musical vision, to the star’s lasting gratitude.

Liz Anderson also wrote Haggard’s first No. 1 hit, the seemingly autobiographical “The Fugitive.” Ironically, at the time, she knew nothing of his prison past.

By then, Merle Haggard was also making hits with his own songs. “Swinging Doors” (1966), “The Bottle Let Me Down” (1966), “I Threw Away the Rose” (1967), “Branded Man” (1967), the death-row ballad “Sing Me Back Home” (1967), “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” (1968), the Grammy Hall of Fame winner “Mama Tried” (1968), “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” (1968), “Hungry Eyes” (1969) and the iconic “Workin’ Man Blues” (1969) were all top-10 hits written by Haggard in the 1960s.

The California based Academy of Country Music (ACM) saluted him with nine awards in 1965-69. The ACM honored him four more times in the 1970s.

Merle Haggard. Photo: Myriam Santos

Merle Haggard. Photo: Myriam Santos

Along with Buck Owens, Red Simpson and Wynn Stewart, Merle Haggard is regarded as a cornerstone figure of The Bakersfield Sound. Characterized by bright-sounding Telecaster electric guitar leads, aggressive production touches and a more edgy approach than contemporary Nashville Sound records, this style marked California country’s heyday. Another exponent was Bonnie Owens, the former wife of Buck who became Haggard’s duet partner, backup singer, co-writer and second wife.

In 1970, Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” was named Single of the Year by the CMA. The controversial, hippie-bashing song was the voice of the people President Nixon called “The Silent Majority.” Haggard followed it with the even more redneck “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”

Still, many from the counterculture began to bring his works to the attention of left-leaning young people. The Grateful Dead, Joan Baez, The Byrds, The Everly Brothers, The Flying Burrito Brothers and others recorded his songs.      

Haggard, himself, added to his political ambiguity. He wanted to put out his interracial love song “Irma Jackson” as a single, but this was vetoed by Capitol. He was asked to endorse reactionary presidential candidate George Wallace, but refused. He returned to San Quentin to perform for the inmates in 1971.

By this time, Merle Haggard was one of the most famous country singers on earth. He was honored with a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1969. The CMA named him its Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year for 1970. California Governor Ronald Reagan granted him a full pardon in 1972. Haggard entertained President Nixon at the White House the following year. The country icon appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1974.

Between 1973 and 1976, he scored nine consecutive No. 1 hits. His Let Me Tell You About a Song was the CMA Album of the Year for 1972.

He was featured in films such as 1968’s Killers Three, 1967’s Hillbillys in a Haunted House and 1969’s From Nashville With Music. He also had acting roles in the TV movies Huckleberry Finn (1975) and Centennial (1979), as well as several TV series.

On disc, his early 1970s hit streak included a revival of Ernest Tubb’s “Soldier’s Last Letter” (1971), plus “Someday We’ll Look Back” (1971), “Daddy Frank” (1971), “Carolyn” (1972), Hank Cochran’s “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” (1972), “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me” (1973), the hard-luck recession anthem “If We Make It Through December” (1973), “Old Man From the Mountain” (1974), Dolly Parton’s “Kentucky Gambler” (1974), “Always Wanting You” (1975), the TV show theme song “Movin’ On” (1975), “The Roots of My Raising” (1976) and a remake of the Cindy Walker/Bob Wills western-swing favorite “Cherokee Maiden” (1976).

His commitment to constant touring was renowned. Although he seldom spoke on stage, his musicianship made him a master showman. In addition, he did humorous imitations of such fellow country stars as Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens and Johnny Cash during his concerts. There were no set lists. Neither his band nor the audience knew which song would be next.

Haggard’s vocal performances seemed to take on new depth and expressiveness after he began recording for MCA in 1976. During the next four years, Haggard released such timeless singles as “If We’re Not Back in Love By Monday” (1977), “Ramblin’ Fever” (1977), “I’m Always on a Mountain When I Fall” (1978), “My Own Kind of Hat” (1979), “The Way I Am” (1980), “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (1980) and “Rainbow Stew” (1981).

This era of his career found him continuing to champion the problems of blue-collar Americans and the common man. Journalists referred to him as a working-class hero. He also often addressed alcoholism, depression and middle age. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977.

His duet partners during this period included Clint Eastwood. The team had a No. 1 hit in 1980 with “Bar Room Buddies.” This appeared on the soundtrack of Eastwood’s movie Bronco Billy, as did Haggard’s No. 1 solo hit “Misery and Gin.” Haggard also recorded duets with singer-songwriter Leona Williams, his third wife.

He signed with Epic Records in 1980, and his decade-long tenure at the label witnessed yet another creative flowering. He recorded hit duets with George Jones (1982’s “Yesterday’s Wine”) and Willie Nelson (1983’s “Pancho and Lefty,” which earned them a CMA Award). Haggard won a 1984 Grammy for his version of the Lefty Frizzell/Whitey Shafer standard “That’s the Way Love Goes.”

His solo Epic hits also included such blockbusters as “My Favorite Memory” (1981), “Big City” (1982), “Are the Good Times Really Over” (1982), “Going Where the Lonely Go” (1982), “Someday When Things Are Good” (1984), “A Place to Fall Apart” (1984), “Natural High” (1985), “Kern River” (1985), “I Had a Beautiful Time” (1986), “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” (1987) and “A Better Love Next Time” (1989).

He published his first autobiography, Sing Me Back Home, in 1981. A second one appeared in 1999, My House of Memories.

Merle Haggard underwent financial, alcohol and drug difficulties during the 1990s. But he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. He won a Living Legend honor at the Music City News Awards in 1990 and an Award of Merit at the 1991 American Music Awards.

Two tribute albums to his music were released in 1994. Tulare Dust featured performances of his songs by Dwight Yoakam, Rosie Flores, Lucinda Williams and Billy Joe Shaver, among others. Mama’s Hungry Eyes co-starred Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Brooks & Dunn, Alabama, Alan Jackson, Randy Travis, Pam Tillis and more. In 1997, TNN aired a tribute-concert TV special titled Workin’ Man, which included Tim McGraw, Trace Adkins, John Anderson, Mark Chesnutt and others.

The emergence of the Americana music genre provided Merle Haggard with a career renaissance. Later-career albums earned him strongly positive reviews. These included 2000’s If I Could Only Fly, 2001’s Roots, 2002’s The Peer Sessions, 2003’s Like Never Before, 2004’s Unforgettable, 2005’s Chicago Wind, 2007’s The Bluegrass Sessions, 2007’s Working Man’s Journey, 2010’s I Am What I Am and 2011’s Working in Tennessee. He recorded for Curb, Epitaph, EMI, Audium, Vanguard and other imprints.

Photo: merlehaggard.com

Photo: merlehaggard.com

He was part of the all-star ensemble on the Grammy-winning “Same Old Train” record of 1998. He sang duets with Jewel (1999) and Gretchen Wilson (2005). He toured with Bob Dylan in 2005. He played Bonnaroo in 2009.

In 2007, he and Willie Nelson recorded with Ray Price on the critically applauded CD Last of a Breed. His 2015 duet reunion album with Nelson was the equally acclaimed Django and Jimmie.

Meanwhile, the Dixie Chicks, Eric Church, Brooks & Dunn, Colin Raye, Shooter Jennings and Lynyrd Skynyrd all saluted him in the lyrics of their songs. In 2006, Haggard was honored as a BMI Icon. He has, to date, 48 BMI Awards that add up to over 25 million performances.

Also in 2006, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. The ACM gave him its Poet’s Award in 2008. Befitting his status as a legend, Merle Haggard was presented with a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010. California State University in Bakersfield gave him an honorary degree in 2013, a doctorate in fine arts.

Always a rugged individualist who resisted political labels, Haggard remained an outspoken American patriot. He opposed the war in Iraq in 2003 and defended the Dixie Chicks’ free-speech rights. He endorsed Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations in 2007, then wrote a song expressing hope for Barak Obama’s inauguration. In recent years, he became interested in conservation and environmental issues. He did yoga, smoked pot, dabbled in herbal medicine and believed in UFO’s and extraterrestrial life.

He had been having health issues since the 1990s. Haggard underwent an angioplasty in 1995 for clogged arteries and received two heart stents in 1997. He suffered herniated discs in his lower back in 2002. In 2008, he had lung-cancer surgery. He was hospitalized with pneumonia in 2012, 2015 and 2016.

Merle Haggard married five times. He was wed to first wife Leona Hobbs from 1956 to 1964, and they had four children — Dana, Marty, Kelli and Noel. Marty and Noel became country singers. Singer-songwriter Bonnie Campbell Owens was Haggard’s wife between 1965 and 1978. She remained in his band after they divorced. Bonne Owens and Leona Hobbs both died in 2006.

His union with singer-songwriter Leona Williams lasted from 1978 to 1983. He married Debbie Parret in 1985 and divorced her in 1991. He has been married to Theresa Ann Lane since 1993. They have two children, Janessa and Ben.

The funeral service for Merle Haggard was held at his home in Palo Cedro, California, on Saturday, April 9. Marty Stuart officiated and sang, along with his wife, Connie Smith.

 

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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