The legendary American country music singer, songwriter, and musician Merle Haggard has died at the age of 79 due to complications from pneumonia. Haggard’s manager reported that the superstar passed away in Bakersfield, California on this, his 79th birthday. He had been in poor health within the last year which led to several concert dates being cancelled.
Merle Haggard had been active in country music for over 50 years and enjoyed a celebrated career and dedicated following of admirers and fans. During the his career he recorded 40 No.1 country songs and wrote many that are now included in the canon of genre. Some call Mr. Haggard a working man’s poet and he was credited for being an originator of the Bakersfield Sound spawned out of California.
He was born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California to Flossie Mae Harp and James Francis Haggard. His parent’s moved from Checotah, Oklahoma, after their barn burned down in 1934, during the Great Depression. His father took a job with the Santa Fe Railroad and two years later they welcomed Merle to their family.
Mr. Haggard’s father passed away in 1945 of a brain hemorrhage and this deeply effected him. His mother, Flossie Mae, had to seek work as a bookkeeper outside of the home and her absence fueled his rebellious streak. The young Haggard was in-and-out-of youth detention centers and reform schools often – from which he escaped on many occasions.
In 1957 a 21 year old Haggard was a married man with financial woes and he was arrested for trying to rob a roadhouse in Bakersfield. He was sent to the Bakersfield jail and later transferred to San Quentin Prison after an escape attempt. While is prison his then wife became pregnant with another man’s child which further plagued the troubled man. He held and lost many jobs while imprisoned and had planned on escaping from prison with a fellow inmate “Rabbit.”
While he was incarcerated and even ran a gambling and brewing scheme cellmate. Haggard was found drunk and sent to solitary confinement where he met a death row inmate, an author, Caryl Chessman. During that same period his old buddy Rabbit did escape from prison. While on the lam Rabbit shot a police officer and returned to Sand Quentin as death row inmate. Witnessing how the bad choices that these two men made landed them on death row, Haggard decided to change his life. While he was still inside he earned his high school equivalency diploma and maintained a job. He would also play in the prison country music band noting that a performance there by Johnny Cash in 1958 inspired him to do so.
When he was release from jail be began work for his brother wiring houses and digging ditches and he started performing at nights. Eventually he started recording with Tally Records. The sound coming out of Bakersfield was in direct reaction and opposition to the polished sound being produced in Nashville at the time.
His first single was, “Skid Row”, but his second single, “Sing Me a Sad Song”, was his first Top 20 hit. While performing in small clubs and making the circuit rounds he recorded the duet, Just Between the Two of Us, with his future wife Bonnie Owens and another song, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” which got them both noticed by and signed to Capitol Records.
Perhaps one of his most memorable hits is 1969’s, “Okie from Muskogee.” The success of that tune made him a star and crossover sensation – the pop audience loved the song. He followed that success with the harder track, “The Fightin’ Side of Me.”
Throughout his lengthy career he paid homage to his influences. He released two tribute albums – one for Jimmie Rodgers and the other Bob Wills. Haggard also released a rendition of the song “That’s the Way Love Goes,” co-written by another favorite, Lefty Frizzell, which spend 21 weeks on the country charts and earned him a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Mr. Haggard was inducted into the country music hall of fame in 1994. His popularity on the radio waned in the 1990s in lieu of the “New Country” sound that was popular at the time. In the early 2000s Haggard recorded two albums on the punk label Anti.
After beating lung cancer Haggard resumed performing music. He often said that he felt most comfortable and at home onstage and that there he had found some of his happiest times.
Merle Haggard’s last solo album, “Working in Tennessee” was released in 2011. Before he is death he also recorded and released two collaborations – one with Mac Wise and the other with Willie Nelson.
He is survived by his wife, Theresa, and his six children: Dana, Marty, Kelli, Noel, Ben, and Jenessa.
He will be missed.