Merle Haggard, who over six decades composed and performed one of the greatest repertoires in country music, capturing the American condition with his stories of the poor, the lost, the working class, heartbroken and hard-living, died at his home in the San Joaquin Valley, California, after a battle with pneumonia, his spokeswoman Tresa Redburn confirmed. Today is his 79th birthday.
In American and country music, few artists loomed larger. Haggard’s career spanned 38 Number One country hits, and his rough hard-edged style influenced country and rock & roll artists from Waylon Jennings and Gram Parsons to Jamey Johnson and Eric Church. As a songwriter, Willie Nelson called him “one of the best.”
“Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2009. “Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the Fifties, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock & roll star, one of the best.”
Haggard didn’t look far for material. His greatest songs – the Depression-era poverty described in “Hungry Eyes,” the prison diaries “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried,” the hard-living anthems like “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Back to the Barrooms” – were all taken from the pages of Haggard’s own life. He was born April 6th, 1937 near Bakersfield, California, two years after his family moved west from Oklahoma during the great dust bowl migration. Haggard’s father found work on the railroad, playing fiddle in roadhouse bands on the side, and bought the family a $500 boxcar house. Haggard lost his father to a stroke – he died of a brain hemorrhage when Haggard was nine. A year later, he hopped his first train with a friend, riding for 18 hours until getting caught. “I tried to explain [to my mother] that anybody could ride with a pass; it took a man to ride the way we had,” he said.
At 11, Haggard’s mother turned him into authorities for being “incorrigible.” He spent his teens in an out of reform schools. By his own estimate, Haggard was locked up more than a dozen times, on charges including robbery truancy, petty larceny, shoplifting, check forgery and car theft.
He credits music as his salvation: A guitarist since age 11, Haggard went to see country star Lefty Frizzell perform in Bakersfield at 14. Haggard snuck backstage and sang one of Frizzell’s songs for the performer, who refused to go on unless Haggard performed first. He did, and Haggard cited that encounter as the moment he fell in love with performing.
Haggard’s luck ran out in 1957, when Haggard and a friend attempted to rob a cafe. He was sentenced to five years in San Quentin State Prison. He worked in the textile mill and “started trying to build up a long line of good things to be proud of.” The stay shaped the rest of Haggard’s life and music; a conversation with convicted rapist Caryl Chessman through the prison air-vents inspired his death row ballad “Sing Me Back Home;” he chronicled his father’s death and the regret he felt behind bars in “Mama Tried.”
Haggard would later recall a prison friend offering to let Haggard in on an escape plan. Haggard turned down the offer, encouraged by the inmates support of his musical talent. (The friend, Haggard said, was executed when he killed a prison guard during his escape.) In 1958, Johnny Cash visited San Quentin. Haggard, then 20, was in the audience. “He had the right attitude. 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.” In San Quentin, Haggard said he “saw the light. I realized what a mess I made out of my life, and I got out of there and stayed out of there. Never did go back.”
After being released early in 1960, Haggard returned home and made his name on the Bakersfield club circuit. Along with Buck Owens Haggard became one of the key architects of the hard-edged Bakersfield sound, a ramped-up, rockier answer to Nashville’s country heavy on strings and sweetness. Haggard playing bass in Wynn Stewart’s band. One night, George Jones showed up drunk while Haggard sang his solo on Marty Robbins’ “Devil Woman.” “He kicked the doors of the office open and said ‘who in the fuck is that?'” Haggard said. “One of the greatest compliments of my life was when George Jones said I was his favorite country singer.” Haggard soon signed to local label Tally Records in 1963 and scored his first national hit with “Sing a Sad Song.” He soon drew interest from Capitol Records. His first Number One hit was 1966’s “I Am a Lonesome Fugitive,” kicking off a rapid run of Number Ones, including 1967’s “Branded Man,” 1968’s “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” and 1968’s “Sing Me Back Home.”
Though his songs hinted at an outlaw past, Haggard kept the public in the dark about his prison stint – that is, until he appeared on the Cash’s network television show in 1969, and Cash urged Haggard to tell his story. “I was bull-headed about my career. I didn’t want to talk about being in prison,” Haggard said. “But Cash said I should talk about it. That way the tabloids wouldn’t be able to. I said I didn’t want to do that and he said, ‘It’s just owning up to it.'”
After telling the public his story, Haggard’s success only grew. The same year, he wrote his signature song, “Okie From Muskogee.” Haggard was frustrated watching hippies protest a war they knew little about, and disrespecting the military. Released three weeks after Woodstock, the song captured the tension between the hippies and the heartland. Its plainspoken pro-military, anti-drug, anti-premarital sex lyrics became an anthem for Americans feeling alienated by the counterculture movement. It hit Number One for one month; whether Haggard was being sincere or ironic is a debate that still rages among country music fans today.
Haggard won the Academy of Country Music’s Top Male Vocalist award four years in a row, and was named Entertainer of the Year in 1970. In 1972, Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, pardoned Haggard for the attempted burglary charge that landed him in San Quentin. A decade later, Haggard would perform at the White House and Reagan would call Merle Haggard’s music “the heart and soul of America.”
Haggard’s hits only made up a small portion of his greatest work. His career is full of left turns; the same year as “Okie From Muskogee,” he released a Jimmie Rodgers tribute album Same Train, a Different Time, and 1970’s The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or My Salute to Bob Wills), for which Haggard spent four obsessive months learning to play the fiddle, employing the surviving members of Wills’ band the Texas Playboys. He was furiously prolific; only a decade into his career, he released an LP titled Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album.
Haggard was married five times. His second wife, Bonnie Owens, was his backup singer, helped shape his sound and shared writing credit on Haggard’s hit “Today I Started Loving You Again.” They divorced in 1978, but continued to tour together (Owens even was a bridesmaid at Haggard’s next wedding, to country singer Leona Williams).
After divorcing Williams in 1983, Haggard moved onto a houseboat on Lake Shasta and bought a stake in a local resort and partied non-stop, a period he sang about on 2011’s “Down on the Houseboat.” “Johnny Carson and I were spending more money on spousal support in the 1980s than any other Americans,” Haggard later wrote. “He used to make jokes about it.” In 1993, Haggard married Theresa Ann Lane. They married in 1993, had two children and remained married until Haggard’s death.
While the hits slowed down, Haggard never stopped touring. In the Nineties, he summed up his career as “a thirty-five-year bus ride.” He and the Strangers played theaters and casinos year-round, often on double-bills with friends like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. “There is a restlessness in my soul that I’ve never conquered, not with motion, marriages, or meaning,” Haggard said recently. “I’ve mellowed a lot, but it’s still there to a degree. And it will be till the day I die.”
In addition to the musical satisfaction he got out of playing live, he saw touring as a form of self-preservation: “I really don’t have a choice,” he told RS in 2012. “For me to be able to bring a show in front of people I’ve got to stay in shape for that and there is no way to slip by. You can go see some old guys, and I won’t name any, that have let it go. They’ll go out there and play two or three songs and bring somebody else to play the rest of it. I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to give them a ticket at the value of the show. I want a good show for the ticket value. If I can’t do that then I’ll go sit down. Hard work requires hard work. If you get soft you can’t do it.”
In recent years, Haggard proudly welcomed his son, Ben, into the band, a virtuoso at Roy Nichols-style Telecaster twang. Ben controlled his father’s social media accounts, giving a window into a different side of Haggard, goofing off at a restaurant table or wearing an “I Love Haters” sweatshirt.
Haggard’s image was a hardened, gruff troubadour, but in his personal life, he was polite, reserved, with an intensely curious mind, especially about current events. A news junkie, he was politically outspoken, taking stances unpopular in the country music world. Decades after his anti-drug anthem “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard shrugged off the lyrics – “I didn’t know anything about marijuana back then,” Haggard told RS last year – and advocated for marijuana, calling it, “one of the most fantastic things in the world.” After receiving a Kennedy Center Honor from President Obama in 2010, Haggard made news speaking in support of the President, describing him as “very different from the media makeout. It’s really almost criminal what they do with our President. There seems to be no shame or anything. They call him all kinds of names all day long, saying he’s doing certain things that he’s not. It’s just a big old political game that I don’t want to be part of.”
Unlike many of his peers, Haggard never stopped writing, releasing 15 albums since 2000. Songs like “What Happened?” and “I’ve Seen it All Go Away,” and “America First” addressed fading American ideals, where, asRolling Stone’s Jason Fine wrote in 2009, “describe a country that has sold out its ideals and abandoned civil liberties, and where people have become timid and small-minded.” “It’s a bleak time in our history,” Haggard toldRS in 2012. “The condition of our country, I don’t think has been in the worst condition since I’ve been alive. I don’t think young people have a handle on it, on what they’ve lost. I feel like a preacher in front of a congregation. I don’t know what to tell them but they have lost a great deal and I doubt that we’ll gain it back in their lifetime. We may never gain it back. When you look at things realistically, this country was built on three shifts every 24 hours and we are talking about working three or four days a week. I don’t see how we can ever gain back to where we were. There’s nobody who wants to do the stoop labor, and there is a whole bunch of it to do.”
As recently as January, when Haggard last spoke with Rolling Stone, he was writing and recording, preparing to hit the studio for a follow-up with Nelson, encouraged by their record and ticket sales. “Our names are like magic together,” he said.
He was looking forward to hitting the road despite reeling from a two-week hospital stay for double pneumonia. “They gave me some steroids one time and I got up and I was giving judo lessons,” he joked. “I can’t stand up with weight. My wife is taking care of me. I’ve lost a lot of weight. I’m going to appear different on stage, well, I’m still on top of things. I’m doing a lot of writing and I’m just proud to be alive and hope that people realize that. I really sincerely thank everybody for the prayers.”