Juli Thanki, email@example.com 2:29 p.m. CDT April 7, 2016
When Merle Haggard died Wednesday at the age of 79, country singers Connie Smith and Marty Stuart felt as though they’d lost a member of their family.
On Saturday the two will pay tribute to the music legend at a private memorial in Palo Cedro, Calif.
“I found out yesterday that Merle had preplanned his own service,” Stuart said Thursday morning. “He requested that Connie sing ‘Precious Memories,’ that me and Connie sing his song ‘Silver Wings,” and that I officiate the service. We’re honored to do it.”
"It's a privilege," added Smith, who knew Haggard for more than 40 years. "He was a real friend, and we loved him dearly."
When Smith was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in 2012, it was Haggard who traveled on his tour bus from California to put the medallion around her neck.
"You just can't beat that," Smith said.
In late 2015, Smith introduced Haggard to the Grand Ole Opry House audience when he made a surprise appearance on the program. She remembered, "I just fell all over myself trying to introduce him because how do you introduce Merle Haggard? Nothing you say will encompass his talent."
Stuart, a devoted supporter of traditional music, cited tribute albums Haggard made for two of his musical heroes, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, as an integral influence upon his own life and career.
"With his superstar power ... he took the role of a professor and a champion of roots and country music," Stuart said. "That inspired me to live an entire life like I’ve lived it. I still think it was one of the boldest, most unselfish moves he could have made. His mindset (when making) those two recordings, amidst all of his big hits, it charted my course for me. It became the North Star and it guided me along."
Merle Haggard leaves behind unparalleled legacy
Dave Paulson, firstname.lastname@example.org 7:28 p.m. CDT April 6, 2016
Country music has had its share of brilliant songwriters, unmistakable singers and larger-than-life figures. Merle Haggard — who died Wednesday at age 79 — was all three, and the list doesn't stop there.
As news of the country legend's death spread on Wednesday afternoon, his fans, friends and fellow music-makers found ways to express their gratitude. Handwritten messages filled pages of a condolence book left at Haggard's plaque at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and tributes poured in online, as thousands put his influence and impact into words.
That's no easy task, as no musician before or since has carved a path quite like Merle Haggard. Below are just a few of the ways the late musician was in a class of his own.
A songwriting giant
Haggard is widely pointed to (alongside Hank Williams) as country music's most influential singer-songwriter. He penned many of his 38 No. 1 songs, a staggering feat not just in quantity but evidence of his incredible range. He was a master of barroom anthems and tender ballads alike, from "Mama Tried" and "Today I Started Loving You Again" to "The Bottle Let Me Down" and "Swinging Doors." Regardless of their form, each was masterfully incisive, emotionally potent and often drawn from Haggard's experiences.
"Merle reveals everything that we need to know about him in the songs that he writes," Vince Gill said as Haggard received the Kennedy Center Honor in 2010. "His writing is not glamorous, it's just real. Hag tells it like it is. He is the poet of the common man."
An independent force
When Haggard was released from San Quentin State Prison in 1960, "I really never looked back," he told The Tennessean in 2012. "And I didn't stumble. I was able to keep my life straight." Still, when it came to his career, he made his own rules. Few breaks were bigger in the 1960s than an appearance on TV's "Ed Sullivan Show" — an opportunity Haggard walked out on when he disagreed with a few production choices.
He kept a healthy distance from Music Row both artistically and geographically, maintaining a base in California. It was inevitable that an artist such as Haggard would be absorbed into country's "Outlaw Movement" alongside Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, but he carved a singular path through his songs. In 2000 he turned heads when he signed with Anti- Records, an offshoot of punk rock label Epitaph.
As he once sang, among "Cowboys and outlaws, right guys and southpaws. ... I stand right here where I'm at / 'cause I wear my own kind of hat."
The 'Bakersfield Sound' defined
Haggard is credited as a key architect of California country's "Bakersfield Sound," which stood in stark contrast to the slick, string-laden production style known as the "Nashville Sound."
He and fellow country music legend Buck Owens were among those who cut their teeth in the smoky bars of Bakersfield, Calif. Electric guitars and full drum kits — not unlike those used by rock 'n' roll bands — were played loud enough to cut through the din of the crowd. That same approach carried over to their recording sessions, giving their tunes a level of grit and gusto not often matched on Music Row.
An outspoken artist
Among Haggard's best-known tunes — particularly to casual country listeners— is 1969's "Okie from Muskogee," which took a stance against the "hippies out in San Francisco" and others who protested the Vietnam War. He doubled down on those "talking bad" about the U.S. in the 1970 song "The Fightin' Side of Me," which included the line, "If you don't love it, leave it." That's a sentiment that's endured in patriotic country tunes to this day, even as Haggard's own views evolved.
"This world has really changed, and a lot of my own opinions have changed over the years," he told The Tennessean in 2003. "I hope there's truth in all my music."
While those songs were quickly adopted as conservative anthems, one year later, Haggard was singing another bold song in a completely different direction. 1971's "Irma Jackson" tells the tale of an interracial relationship that has to end because of societal pressures.
"There's no way the world will understand that love is colorblind," he sang. "That's why Irma Jackson can't be mine."
An immeasurable legacy
Much like his songs' vast range of styles and sentiments, Haggard's influence continues to reach far and wide across the musical landscape. He's inspired several decades worth of country superstars — George Strait, Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church (some more in attitude than in musical style) — and was namechecked in several modern country singles.
On the other end of the coin, countless Americana artists, roots-rockers and classic country revivalists have worn Haggard's influence proudly on their sleeve, including indie-country phenom Sturgill Simpson, who recently shared a photo of him and Haggard playing guitar.
Rock artists admired him from the outset: The Grateful Dead made "Mama Tried" a staple of their concerts, and The Byrds included "Life In Prison" on their 1968 album "Sweetheart of the Rodeo." His crossover appeal has been heard in the sounds of country-inspired punks Social Distortion and John Doe, and even indie-rockers The Shins — frontman James Mercer said he "learned so much about songwriting from this man's work."