Country Music Legend Merle Haggard Dies at 79

Merle Haggard, one of the original country and western music outlaws, has died today, his birthday, at the age of 79.

Haggard’s more than 50-year career spawned almost 40 No. 1 hits and 70 albums. Along with Buck Owens, he is also one of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which merges Western swing, honky tonk, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll.

“Merle Ronald Haggard remains, with the arguable exception of Hank Williams, the single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history,” said the Country Music Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1994.

Recently Haggard postponed his March tour after being hospitalized for pneumonia, which he had battled for months. The country star’s poor health had already led to several canceled concerts. Right before he nixed his February concert dates, Haggard told Rolling Stone about his fight with pneumonia:

“I had a pain that went all the way around from my belly button all the way around to my back. I asked the doctor, ‘What was that pain?’ He said it was death.”

Merle Haggard’s Early Years

Long known as a champion of the working man, Haggard’s music has almost always spoken up for the underdog – the convicts, drunks and losers of the world. “I sometimes feel like I’m standing up for the people that don’t have the nerve to stand up for themselves,” he told GQ in 2012. “I just enjoyed winning for the loser. I’d never been around anything except losers my whole life.”

Merle Haggard in 1975
Merle Haggard in 1975

Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, California. His parents, who moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression, raised him in an old train boxcar that had been converted into a home. When he was 12 years old, Haggard’s older brother gave him a guitar, which he taught himself to play by listening to records.

Even though country musicians inspired him as a teenager, particularly Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams, he just couldn’t stay out of trouble. Haggard’s criminal record was a mile long – including such offenses as truancy, passing phony checks and grand theft auto – and he was in and out of jail throughout his teen years. When he wasn’t in jail, he was busy playing in local bars and clubs.

Haggard’s Prison Years and Beyond

All that bad behavior caught up with Haggard and in 1958 he was sent to San Quentin prison after being convicted of burglary and an attempt to escape from county jail. While he was locked up, serving a 15-year term, he saw Johnny Cash perform on New Year’s Day.

Merle Haggard Performing in June 2009
Merle Haggard Performing in June 2009

“He had the right attitude,” Haggard said of Cash. “He chewed gum, looked arrogant and flipped the bird to the guards — he did everything the prisoners wanted to do. He was a mean mother from the South who was there because he loved us. When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan.”

Seeing Cash’s performance reportedly inspired Haggard to play country music and take high school equivalency courses. Haggard was later given a full pardon in 1972 by then-governor Ronald Reagan.

When he got out of prison in 1960, Haggard went back to Bakersfield and worked a day job digging ditches. At night he played lead guitar in a local band, and by 1962 he was on his way to Las Vegas – and a long and successful music career – to back singer Wynn Stewart. He signed with Tally Records and recorded his debut single “Sing a Sad Song,” which rose to No. 19 on the country charts. By 1965, Haggard had formed a band, The Strangers, and signed with Capitol Records. Later that year, the band released their debut self-titled album. In 1967 their single, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” hit the top of the country charts, followed by No. 1 “Branded Man.”

After a streak of No. 1 singles, Haggard released in 1969 his most famous – and controversial – song “Okie from Muskogee,” which celebrated patriotism and traditional values at a time when the Vietnam War was being vigorously protested by young people across the country.

“We were in a wonderful time in America and music was in a wonderful place. America was at its peak and what the hell did these kids have to complain about? These soldiers were giving up their freedom and lives to make sure others could stay free. I wrote the song to support those soldiers,” he once said.

Country Music Legend Merle Haggard Dies at 79 was originally published at Reverb on April 6, 2016.

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