Breaking News: Merle Haggard dead at 79

Merle Haggard at The Grand Ole Opry on Sept. 27, 2003. (Photo: Alan Poizner / For The Tennessean)

 Juli Thanki, jthanki@tennessean.com 3:28 p.m. CDT April 6, 2016

Merle Haggard, the working man’s poet, an architect of the Bakersfield Sound, and a fiercely independent artist who influenced country music like few others, died Wednesday in California, surrounded by friends and family. He was 79. 

 

Merle Haggard, the working man’s poet, an architect of the Bakersfield Sound and a fiercely independent artist who influenced country music like few others, died Wednesday in California, surrounded by friends and family.

He had just turned 79 and had been in failing health for some time, leading to the diagnosis of double pneumonia and subsequent cancellation of several concert dates, including two nights at the Ryman Auditorium that were originally scheduled for March.

Over the course of his half-century career, Mr. Haggard recorded 38 No. 1 country singles and wrote some of the genre’s most revered classics, which have been recorded by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, The Byrds, Vince Gill, The Grateful Dead and countless others.

1970: Merle Haggard sings 'Okie from Muskogee' during the nationwide telecast of the CMA Awards show.  Jimmy Ellis / The Tennessean

"Merle Haggard's reach knew no bounds," said Jay Orr, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Orr also noted that Mr. Haggard so embodied country music that the museum's core exhibit, "Sing Me Back Home," takes its title from a chart-topping song he released in 1968.

Mr. Haggard’s life, which took him from a San Quentin prison cell to the Country Music Hall of Fame, was a truly American success story.

“In some ways, his life sounds like fiction, but if it were fiction, no one would believe it,” said Harris on the night of his Hall of Fame induction.

1970s (early, approximately): Glen Campbell, right, appears with, from left, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour in this undated publicity photo.  Associated Press

Born to Oklahoma migrants James and Flossie Haggard on April 6, 1937 in Bakersfield, Calif., Merle Ronald Haggard was the youngest of three children. The Haggard family lived in a converted railroad car in Oildale, Cal.

After his father died of a stroke in 1946, Merle started getting into trouble. At the age of 10, he hopped his first train with a friend and made it to Fresno, Calif., before he got caught. The rebellious young man spent time in juvenile facilities and reform schools over the next several years, but he also fell in love with music and began learning to play guitar. He was captivated by country artists such as Lefty Frizzell, Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills and “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band”: The Maddox Brothers and Rose.

2000: Charley Pride, right, receives his Country Music Hall of Fame plaque from Merle Haggard at the Country Music Association Awards show.  Charlie Neibergall / The Tennessean

When Mr. Haggard was 20, he was sent to San Quentin State Prison after a burglary attempt, a crime for which he'd receive a "full and unconditional pardon" in 1972 from California's then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. While imprisoned, he saw country star Johnny Cash perform for the inmates, played in the prison band and worked in the San Quentin textile mill. Upon his 1960 release, Mr. Haggard — who was by then married to his first wife, Leona Hobbs, with whom he’d have four children — was determined to turn his life around.

THE TENNESSEAN

World reacts to Merle Haggard's death

Mr. Haggard’s days were filled with labor — ditch digging and electrical work — but his nights belonged to music. He got involved in the Bakersfield country music scene alongside up-and-coming artists such as Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart. Two thousand miles away in Music City, the Nashville Sound was full of lush string arrangements, but the sounds coming out of Bakersfield were harder, twangier and absolutely irresistible. After a short stint playing bass for Owens, Mr. Haggard joined Stewart’s band.

1972: Merle Haggard performs at the Capitol Records show at the Municipal Auditorium, as part of CMA Week.  Joe Rudis / The Tennessean

In 1962 he released his debut single, “Skid Row.” His second single, “Sing Me a Sad Song,” was written by Stewart. It became Mr. Haggard’s first Top 20 hit for Tally Records, a small label co-founded by Fuzzy Owen, who’d spend several decades as Mr. Haggard’s manager.

While working the bar and club circuit, Mr. Haggard recorded “Just Between the Two of Us,” a duet with future wife Bonnie Owens, and “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” which captured the attention of Capitol Records’ Ken Nelson, who signed him and Owens to the label.

 

THE TENNESSEAN

World reacts to Merle Haggard's death

When they met, Bonnie Owens was the bigger name, but Mr. Haggard’s fame soon eclipsed hers. They married in 1965 and she spent years helping to raise his children and singing backup for him as part of his band The Strangers. After they divorced, Owens continued to work with Mr. Haggard, and even served as a bridesmaid when he married Leona Williams in 1978.

1973: Husband and wife teams take a breather as Tammy Wynette, left, and George Jones chat with Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens during the BMI Awards banquet at the Belle Meade Country Club.  Robert Johnson / The Tennessean

1973: Husband and wife teams take a breather as Tammy Wynette, left, and George Jones chat with Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens during the BMI Awards banquet at the Belle Meade Country Club.  Robert Johnson / The Tennessean

From the mid-1960s through the ‘70s, Mr. Haggard released one top-notch song after another, a string of hits that are now an integral and beloved part of the country music canon, including "Sing Me Back Home," "Hungry Eyes," "Workin' Man Blues" and "Mama Tried." Many singles topped the charts, beginning in 1965 with his first No. 1 single, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”

Other songs that weren’t released as singles, including “Today I Started Loving You Again” (perhaps the Haggard song most covered by other artists) and “Irma Jackson,” about an interracial romance, display Mr. Haggard’s depth as an artist.

“I’m the first to admit the English language is not my specialty,” Mr. Haggard wrote in the preface to his 1999 autobiography, “My House of Memories.” However, the plainspoken power of his lyrics touched listeners across generations.

 

THE TENNESSEAN

Appreciation: Merle Haggard left rich country legacy

In 1969 Mr. Haggard released a career-changing song, “Okie From Muskogee,” about the values of small-town life. Co-written with Roy Edward Burns, it spent four weeks atop the country charts and crossed over to the pop charts as well. “Okie” was followed by another hard-nosed single, 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Both became signature songs for Mr. Haggard, and after the songs were released, he rarely, if ever, left a stage without playing them.

"'Okie' made him a star," said music historian and journalist David Cantwell," author of "Merle Haggard: The Running Kind."

 

"It brought him TV appearances and magazine profiles, and with a pop-roots sound and class-savvy songs that were well-respected among rock and country musicians alike, he had a chance there to become a pop star like Johnny Cash or Glen Campbell. His initial thought for a follow-up, 'Irma Jackson" ... could have been a big pop hit. But the record he released instead, 'Fightin' Side,' took sides and shrunk him back down to country-star size. And that's where he stayed even as his melodic elegance and blue collar smarts continued to grow."

“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” in 1987 was Mr. Haggard’s last single to top the charts.

Throughout his career, Mr. Haggard wore his influences on his sleeve. He released tribute albums honoring two of his favorite artists, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, and his 1983 version of “That’s the Way Love Goes,” which was co-written by another artist he admired, Frizzell, spent 21 weeks on the charts and earned him a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Just as Mr. Haggard studied the works of his musical heroes, contemporary acts look to him: stars such as George Strait and Miranda Lambert have cited him as influences, and Eric Church recorded a song called “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag.”

Merle Haggard performs for the crowd at Municipal Auditorium on Oct. 21, 1972, during the Capitol Records show.  Joe Rudis / The Tennessean

Mr. Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. During his induction speech, he unfurled a five-foot-long list of people he wanted to thank, beginning with, he deadpanned, his plumber. That year, Haggard’s single “In My Next Life” peaked at No. 58 on the charts. Though country radio didn’t seem to have much use for Mr. Haggard during the Hot New Country era of the 1990s, by the end of the decade, he was poised for a comeback. He began cranking out albums, including two for punk label Anti- in 2000 and 2001; a bluegrass record, “Kickin’ Out the Footlights ... Again” with George Jones; and “Last of the Breed,” a double-disc album with Willie Nelson and Ray Price.

Mr. Haggard did experience a small setback in 2008 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. After recovering from surgery in which a piece of his lung was removed, he resumed rambling, playing 100-plus shows per year.

1997: Johnny Paycheck, Merle Haggard and George Jones, (from left) perform during the Old Timers show at Fan Fair.  Piland Randy /The Tennessean

Performing was where he felt most at home: In 1986 Mr. Haggard told Patrick Carr of “Country Music Magazine,” “Probably the happiest moments of my life have been on a stage. …The stage is a refuge for me, and it always has been. Over the years, I’ve climbed inside my music when things went wrong. I still do that. My music is where I really live.”

In 2010 Mr. Haggard traveled to Washington to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, which are given to those in the performing arts for their contributions to American culture.

His last solo album, “Working in Tennessee,” was released in 2011, and in 2015 he released two more collaborative albums: one with legendary country/bluegrass singer Mac Wiseman and “Django and Jimmie” with Willie Nelson. The latter featured the two legends warmly meditating on their mortality with songs such as “Live This Long” and “Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” but they still made room for humor with the record’s lead single, “It’s All Going to Pot.”

"He was such a gentleman, and he left a heck of a legacy," said Wiseman after Mr. Haggard died. The two men first met in California during the late 1950s; they became dear friends and mutual admirers of each other's work. Their recent album together, "Timeless," was, Wiseman said, "a labor of love" for the both of them.

Mr. Haggard is survived by his wife, Theresa, whom he married in 1993, and his children, Dana, Marty, Kelli, Noel, Ben and Jenessa.

Funeral arrangements are not available at this time.

Appreciation: Merle Haggard left rich country legacy

Brian Mansfield, Special for USA TODAY5:23 p.m. CDT April 6, 2016

Country music star Merle Haggard passed away at the age of 79. Here are 5 of his most classic hits.VPC

Country music star Merle Haggard, left, works with Hank Cochran in a Nashville studio March 8, 1977.  Bill Welch / The Tennessean

 

In his 1968 song Mama Tried, Merle Haggard sang of turning 21 in prison. Haggard, who died Wednesday in California on his 79th birthday, had done just that, though not, as he sang in the song, “doing life without parole.”

Haggard’s youth of petty crime, financial insecurity and freight-car hopping eventually informed songs that spoke plainly but not predictably of social outcasts, blue-collar concerns and persistent restlessness.

 

THE TENNESSEAN

Merle Haggard dead at 79

Aside, perhaps, from Hank Williams, no other figure in country music affected the way songs would be written and how they would be sung as much as Haggard did. A 53-year recording career yielded 38 No. 1 country hits, a run exceeded only by Conway Twitty and George Strait.

Haggard was born in Oildale, Calif., in 1937, the son of a pair of Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma. He spent his early years living in a house that his father, James Haggard, had fashioned from an abandoned refrigerated train car.

The elder Haggard died when Merle was 9, throwing his world into chaos. Two years later, he hopped his first railroad car, starting a series of encounters with police that culminated in a stretch of hard time.

Having botched a burglary — he and a friend tried to break into a restaurant while it was still open — Haggard spent two and a half years at San Quentin State Prison before being paroled in 1960, at 23. In 1972, then-California governor Ronald Reagan granted him a full pardon.

 

THE TENNESSEAN

World reacts to Merle Haggard's death

Haggard had dabbled in music before prison. Inspired by a Johnny Cash concert at San Quentin, he pursued it in earnest upon his release, eventually landing a gig playing bass for California country star Wynn Stewart. Haggard signed to Tally Records in 1962. His Sing A Sad Song entered the charts the final week of 1963.

He moved to Capitol Records in 1965 and had his first chart-topper, The Fugitive, two years later. Rather than move to Nashville, as many country singers did, Haggard preferred to stay in California, often recording at Capitol’s Hollywood studios. The records he made with his band, The Strangers, sported lean, twangy arrangements that aligned him with the “Bakersfield sound” popularized by singers like Stewart and Buck Owens.

Haggard’s most famous hit, Okie From Muskogee, came in the fall of 1969. It spent four weeks atop the country chart; the following year, both Nashville’s Country Music Association and the Los Angeles-based Academy of Country Music picked it as the genre’s top single.

Okie touted traditional, patriotic values in his music. “We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street,” Haggard sang on country radio stations as hundreds of thousands gathered for National Moratorium demonstrations against the Vietnam War, “but we like living right and being free.”

Merle Haggard is moved by the cheering crowd after he finished a song during the "Grand Ole Opry" on Sept. 27, 2003.  Alan Poizner / For The Tennessean

But Haggard’s own perspectives, even when it came to that song, rarely were so cut and dried. At times, he seemed to defend its conservative vantage point. Other times, he said he’d tried to put himself in the shoes of people like his father and imagine how they might have felt about the ’60s cultural climate.

Haggard’s politically oriented songs ran the gamut. If there was some question whether Haggard’s personal opinions matched those in Okie, no one could misunderstand his message for a certain type of protester in his next single: “When you’re runnin’ down our country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”

Those songs — and Workin’ Man Blues, where he sang, “I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be” — made him a favorite of Republicans, to the point that President Nixon invited Haggard and The Strangers to perform at the White House in 1973.

But Haggard answered to his own whims and beliefs, not those of any audience, and he felt no more comfortable in the Nixon camp than he did in Nashville. He sang about interracial romance (Irma Jackson) and illegal immigrants (The Immigrant) with the same kind of empathy he felt for inmates and ramblers.

Later, he criticized the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq in 2003’s That’s the Newsand the war itself in Rebuild America First. In 2007, he wrote a song supporting Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy.

Most country radio stations didn’t touch those songs. Of course, they hadn’t played many of Haggard’s new records since Reagan had left office.

Whether or not radio showed an interest in what he was doing, Haggard always kept his adventurous musical spirit. At the height of his career, he recorded tribute albums to his idols Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, as well as a live album of Dixieland blues. Later, he signed with indie label Anti- and recorded an album honoring honky-tonk heroes Hank Williams, Hank Thompson and Lefty Frizzell. His last solo album, 2011’s Working in Tennessee — released three years after he lost half a lung to cancer — included a reworking of Workin' Man Blues recorded with his teenage son Ben and Willie Nelson.

Haggard used those reference points and others in his own work, creating music that invariably drew on the past, spoke to the present and influenced the future. He left an indelible mark on subsequent generations of singers, so his sound really has never left the airwaves.

It’s there, in the voices of Strait and Randy Travis, who claimed his influence, and in the songs of those who yearned for his gift of writing simply and with such emotional resonance. It’s in the music of Emmylou Harris, Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam, who recorded his songs.

Finally, it’s there in nearly a half-century’s worth of songs that span the range of the American experience. Songs about prisons and barrooms, of highways and trains, of loves lost and remembered, of life lived in the spotlight and looking in the mirror. Nobody approached those subjects quite like Haggard, but everyone could find a piece of themselves in his songs