"My Merle passed away this morning peacefully surrounded by his loved ones after
a long hard battle with his health.
Today April 6, 2016, which was his 79th birthday. He left to go to a much better place.
He was the best singer, songwriter and performer I’ve ever seen.
Not only did he write the songs he sang, he was the music.
I will miss him forever".
The word “legend” usually makes an appearance at some point when discussing Merle Haggard. It’s an acknowledgment of his artistry and his standing as “the poet of the common man.” It’s a tribute to his incredible commercial success and to the lasting mark he has made, not just on country music, but on American music as a whole. It’s apt in every way but one.
The term imposes an aura of loftiness that’s totally at odds with the grit and heart of Haggard’s songs. “I’d be more comfortable with something like “professor,” he once told a reporter, and the description suits him. Studying, analyzing and observing the details of life around him, Haggard relays what he sees, hears and feels through his songs. The lyrics are deceptively simple, the music exceptionally listenable. Others who have lived through those same situations recognize the truth in the stories he tells. But Haggard’s real gift is that anyone who hears his songs recognizes the truth in them. When a Merle Haggard song plays, it can make an innocent-as-apple-pie grandma understand the stark loneliness and self-loathing of a prisoner on death row; a rich kid who never wanted for any material possession get a feel for the pain of wondering where the next meal will come from; a tee-totaling pillar of the community sympathize with the poor heartbroken guy downing shots at the local bar.
As a result, Haggard found his songs at the top of the charts on a regular basis. Immediately embraced by country fans, he also earned the respect of his peers. In addition to the 40 #1 hits included here, Haggard charted scores of Top Ten songs. He won just about every music award imaginable, both as a performer and as a songwriter, and in 1994 was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His body of work easily places him beside Hank Williams as one of the most influential artists in country music.
That’s quite an accomplishment for the boy who was once officially branded “incorrigible.”
Merle Ronald Haggard was born in 1937, outside Bakersfield, California. His parents, Jim and Flossie, moved the family there after their farm in Oklahoma burned down, with Jim finding work as a carpenter for the Santa Fe Railroad. The family lived in an old boxcar that they converted into a home. Though struggling to make a meager living, they had a sturdy shelter and food was always on the table.
Things changed dramatically after Jim died of a stroke when Merle was nine years old. It was a devastating event for the young boy, who was very close to his father. His mother went to work as a bookkeeper to make ends meet, often leaving Merle in the care of a great aunt and uncle. With his world turned upside down, Haggard turned rebellious. He hopped a freight train when he was just ten years old, making it to Fresno before being picked up by the authorities. It was the first step toward a youth of truancy from school and petty crime. For the next few years, Haggard would find himself in reform schools, sometimes making an escape, only to get thrown back in again.
The angel on his shoulder during these troubled times was Haggard’s love and talent for music. Though he gave it up before Merle was born, his father used to play fiddle and guitar in Oklahoma for schoolhouse dances and social gatherings. Not having an automobile or formal instrument cases, the senior Haggard would ride his horse to these gatherings, carrying his fiddle on one side of the horse and the guitar on the other, in large pillowcases.
Still some of the musical gift had been passed on to Merle, and he easily took to playing guitar. Starting out as a fan of Bob Wills, Haggard eventually found his musical idol in Lefty Frizzell, and worked up a pretty impressive copy of the original’s singing style. “For three or four years I didn’t sing anything but Lefty Frizzell songs,” Merle told Music City News. “And then, because Lefty was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers, I learned to imitate him too.” Haggard got the chance to see Lefty perform in person when he was 14. “He was dressed in white – heroes usually are,” Merle said.
The hero wasn’t a savior though, at least not in an immediate sense. Haggard was already starting to make small amounts of money here and there by playing music, but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of trouble. He left home at 15 with a friend, and the two were picked up as suspects in a robbery. Though innocent, he ended up in jail for two-and-a-half weeks. It was the first time he tasted prison life, but it wasn’t the last. In and out of jail over the years for small crimes, he found himself doing serious time in San Quentin at the age of 20.
“Going to prison has one of a few effects,” he told Salon in 2004. “It can make you worse, or it can make you understand and appreciate freedom. I learned to appreciate freedom when I didn’t have any.”
His musical ability offered hope for a future. A fellow inmate at San Quentin, nicknamed Rabbit, saw that clearly. When Rabbit came up with an escape plan, he told Haggard that he could come along, but probably shouldn’t, since he had a good shot of making a career from his singing.
As Rabbit had predicted, Haggard’s music was his way out of a dead-end life of small crimes and intermittent jail time. Released from San Quentin in 1960, he joined the then thriving Bakersfield country scene, which eschewed the smooth country-politan sound coming out of Nashville for a harder-hitting honky-tonk groove.
After making an impression working in local clubs, Haggard joined Las Vegas star Wynn Stewart’s band in 1962 as a bassist. When he got a chance to record his own single, Haggard chose the Stewart composition, “Sing A Sad Song.” It came out on the small Tally Records label in 1964, and made it into the Top Twenty. His follow up singles didn’t do quite as well, until “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” went into the Top Ten and brought him to the attention of Capitol Records. He proved himself a hit maker with three Top Ten singles in 1967, including his first #1, “The Fugitive.
Songwriters Liz and Casey Anderson were inspired by a popular TV series, “The Fugitive.” But Haggard knew firsthand what it was like to be on the run. In some ways, he may have felt that he was in that same situation again. Here he’d successfully turned his life around, and he realized that his criminal past might now come back to slap him down. He made those feelings clear less than a year later in his next #1. The self-penned “Branded Man” includes the lines, “When they let me out of prison, I held my head up high/Determined I would rise above the shame/But no matter where I’m living, the black mark follows me/I’m branded with a number on my name.”
Haggard said Johnny Cash encouraged him to address his problems directly in verse. “I was bull-headed about my career. I didn’t want to talk about being in prison,” Haggard recalls, “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.'” When Cash introduced him on his variety show, he said, “Here’s a man who writes about his own life and has had a life to write about.”
From that point on, Haggard stopped hiding the story of his past incarcerations, and his songs opened a window on the dark life of prisoners and ex-cons. “Sing Me Back Home,” another #1 in 1967, was written for his old friend Rabbit, who was executed after his escape plan led to the death of a prison guard. “Mama Tried,” which reached the top of the chart in 1968, offered an apology of sorts to Haggard’s religious and hardworking mother, absolving her of blame for his bad behavior.
He laid out all the other aspects of his life in subsequent songs, proving himself an adept lyricist who specialized in sorrow and pain, with the occasional dash of hope or humor.
His 1969 hit “Hungry Eyes,” a heartrending portrait of a family in poverty, includes a line about a “canvas-covered cabin,” a reference to the home of the great aunt and uncle he stayed with as a boy.
By 1969, Haggard had also won over a good portion of musicians and critics in the rock world. Rolling Stone itself pointed its readers toward his music. Producer Don Was, who has worked with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt, told Newsweek in 1996, “He’ll tell you he’s a country singer, but to me the essence of rock and roll is a cry for freedom and rebellion. And I don’t know anyone who embodies it better. Every aspect of his life is a refusal to submit.”
Still, Was admits that when he went to see Haggard in concert in the late ’60s he tucked his hippie-length hair into a cowboy hat. It was a politically divisive time, with the Vietnam War serving as a lightning rod for opposing political views. Young people protested against the war and openly burned their draft cards, enraging those who felt it was their patriotic duty to support the war and the men who fought it. “Working Man Blues,” which came out in 1969, may have appealed to the rock crowd because of its hard-driving beat and its anti-elitism, but it delivered a clear message of solidarity to the blue collar country audience, with its uncomplimentary reference to welfare. That political stance was solidified with Haggard’s most popular song, “Okie From Muskogee.” He says the song started as a joke, and its tone definitely leans toward the humorous, but it also drew a clear line between “us” and “them.” Haggard spoke for the Americans who didn’t smoke marijuana, didn’t burn their draft cards, didn’t grow their hair long and shaggy and were “proud to wave Old Glory down at the courthouse.” Followed by the belligerent “Fightin’ Side of Me,” which undeniably challenged the anti-war protesters, it made Haggard a political symbol. In the ensuing years, Richard Nixon invited him to sing at the White House. Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, gave him an unconditional pardon for his past criminal offenses. George Wallace asked him for an endorsement – which Haggard turned down.
The furor caused by those two songs took Haggard by surprise, but he never shied away from writing songs with a strong point of view. In 1972, he released “I Wonder If They Ever Think Of Me,” which revisits Vietnam via the thoughts of a P.O.W.
Of course, Haggard also wrote about more cheerful issues. “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)” in 1971, and “Grandma Harp” in 1972, both express his joy in music and how it saved him in low times.
All of the particulars of his existence were source material, and Haggard is a man who has been married five times. When his second marriage, to Bonnie Owens, was unraveling, the hurt came through in songs like “Things Aren’t Funny Anymore,” with the line “Seems we’ve lost the way to find/All the good times we found before.” Owens, who had previously been married to Buck Owens, was Haggard’s first duet partner and a good friend as well as his wife. His romantic devotion is apparent in “Always Wanting You,” a sigh of unrequited love that he wrote for Dolly Parton, who he pined for when his marriage to Bonnie was over.
His third wife, Leona Williams, was also a singer and songwriter. The sweetness of “It’s All In The Movies,” mirrored Haggard’s renewed romantic happiness. Then, when that marriage began to crumble, fans heard the details in his recordings of “You Take Me For Granted,”A written by the soon-to-be-ex Mrs. Haggard and “Someday When Things Are Good,” written by both Merle and Leona.
Haggard's next LP was A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, dedicated to Bob Wills, which helped spark a permanent revival and expanded audience for western swing. By this point, Haggard was one of the most famous country singers in the world, having enjoyed an immensely successful artistic and commercial run with Capitol accumulating twenty-four number 1 country singles since 1966.
In 1972, Let Me Tell You about A Song, the first TV special starring Haggard, was nationally syndicated by Capital Cities TV Productions. It was a semi-autobiographical musical profile of Haggard, akin to the contemporary Behind The Music, produced and directed by Michael Davis. The 1973 recession anthem, "If We Make It Through December", furthered Haggard's status as a champion of the working class. "If We Make It Through December" turned out to be Haggard's last crossover pop hit.
Haggard appeared on the cover of TIME on May 6, 1974. He also wrote and performed the theme song to the television series Movin' On, which in 1975 gave him another number one country hit. During the early to mid-1970s, Haggard's country chart domination continued with songs like "Someday We'll Look Back", "Grandma Harp", "Always Wanting You", and "The Roots of My Raising". Between 1973 and 1976, he scored nine consecutive number 1 country hits.
In 1977, he switched to MCA Records and began exploring the themes of depression, alcoholism, and middle age on albums such as Serving 190 Proof and The Way I Am. Haggard sang a duet cover of Billy Burnette's "What's A Little Love Between Friends" with Lynda Carter in her 1980 television music special, Lynda Carter: Encore! He also scored a number 1 hit in 1980 with "Bar Room Buddies", a duet with actor Clint Eastwood that appeared on the Bronco Billy soundtrack.
In 1981, Haggard published an autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. The same year, he alternately spoke and sang the ballad "The Man in the Mask". Written by Dean Pitchford (whose other work includes "Fame", "Footloose", "Sing", "Solid Gold", and the musical Carrie), this was the combined narration and theme for the movie The Legend of the Lone Ranger, a box-office flop. Haggard also changed record labels again in 1981, moving to Epic and releasing one of his most critically acclaimed albums, Big City.
Between 1981 and 1985, Haggard scored twelve more Top 10 country hits, with nine of them reaching number 1, including "My Favorite Memory," "Going Where the Lonely Go," "Someday When Things Are Good," and "Natural High." In addition, Haggard recorded two chart-topping duets with George Jones ("Yesterdays' Wine" in 1982) and Willie Nelson ("Pancho and Lefty" in 1983).
Haggard won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his 1984 remake of "That's The Way Love Goes."
He was hampered by financial woes well into the 1990s, as his presence on the charts diminished in favor of newer country singers, such as George Strait and Randy Travis. Haggard's last number one hit was "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star" from his smash album Chill Factor in 1988.
In 1989, Haggard recorded a song, "Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn", in response to the Supreme Court's decision to allow flag burning under the First Amendment. After CBS Records Nashville avoided releasing the song, Haggard bought his way out of the contract and signed with Curb Records, which was willing to release the song. Haggard commented about the situation, "I've never been a guy that can do what people told me...It's always been my nature to fight the system."
In 2000, Haggard made a comeback of sorts, signing with the independent record label Anti and releasing the spare If I Could Only Fly to critical acclaim. He followed it in 2001 with Roots, vol. 1, a collection of Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Hank Thompson covers, along with three Haggard originals. The album, recorded in Haggard's living room with no overdubs, featured Haggard's longtime bandmates the Strangers as well as Frizzell's original lead guitarist, Norman Stephens.
Haggard's number one hit single "Mama Tried" is featured in the 2003 film Radio with Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Ed Harris as well as in Bryan Bertino's "The Strangers" with Liv Tyler. In addition, his song "Swingin' Doors" can be heard in the film Crash (2004), and his 1981 hit "Big City" is heard in Joel and Ethan Coen's film Fargo.
In October 2005, Haggard released his album Chicago Wind to mostly positive reviews. The album contained an anti-Iraq war song titled "America First," in which he laments the nation's economy and faltering infrastructure, applauds its soldiers, and sings, "Let's get out of Iraq, and get back on track." This follows from his 2003 release "Haggard Like Never Before" in which he includes a song, "That's The News". Haggard released a bluegrass album, The Bluegrass Sessions, on October 2, 2007.
In 2008, Haggard was going to perform at Riverfest in Little Rock, Arkansas, but the concert was canceled because he was ailing, and three other concerts were canceled, as well; however, he was back on the road in June and successfully completed a tour that ended on October 19, 2008.
In April 2010, Haggard released a new album, I Am What I Am, to strong reviews, and he performed the title song on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in February 2011.
Django and Jimmie marked Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's sixth album collaboration. Nelson announced its completion during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! at South by Southwest festival on March 20, 2015. The release of the first single, "It's All Going to Pot" was set for April 20 (420 day).
Produced by Buddy Cannon, the album features fourteen tracks by Nelson and Haggard. The song "Django and Jimmie" is a tribute to musicians Django Reinhardt and Jimmie Rodgers. Cannon forwarded the title-track to Haggard and Nelson separately. Both were interested by the song, and had talked in previous years about recording a new collaboration album.The preproduction of the album took eighteen months. The parties involved discussed the type of material they wanted to include in the album and co-wrote some of the songs by talking on the telephone. The entire album was recorded in three days. It features a guest appearance by Bobby Bare on the tribute song "Missing Ol' Johnny Cash".
Haggard underwent angioplasty in 1995 to unblock clogged arteries. On November 9, 2008, it was announced that he had been diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer in May and undergone surgery on November 3, during which part of his lung was removed. Haggard returned home on November 8. Less than two months after his cancer surgery, he played two shows on January 2 and 3, 2009, in Bakersfield at Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, and continued to tour and record until his death.
On December 5, 2015, Haggard was treated at an undisclosed hospital in California for pneumonia. He made a recovery but postponed several concerts.
In March 2016, Haggard was once again hospitalized. His concerts for April were canceled due to his ongoing double pneumonia. On the morning of April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday, he died of complications from pneumonia at his home in Palo Cedro, California. His son Ben said that Haggard had predicted the day of his death a week prior.
Willie Nelson paid tribute to his good friend and frequent singing partner Merle Haggard on Facebook Wednesday afternoon: "He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him.”
Stars from all corners of the country took to Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere to talk about Haggard and his legacy. Tanya Tucker, Lorrie Morgan and the Oak Ridge Boys are just a few. Dolly Parton shared a few poignant words through her publicist: "We’ve lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads. I loved him like a brother. Rest easy, Merle".
Number one hits on US country charts
"I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" (1966)
"Sing Me Back Home" (1968)
"The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde" (1968)
"Mama Tried" (1968)
"Hungry Eyes" (1969)
"Workin' Man Blues" (1969)
"Okie from Muskogee" (1969)
"The Fightin' Side of Me" (1970)
"Daddy Frank" (1971)
"Grandma Harp" (1972)
"It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad)" (1972)
"I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me" (1972)
"Everybody's Had the Blues" (1973)
"If We Make It Through December" (1973)
"Things Aren't Funny Anymore" (1974)
"Old Man from the Mountain" (1974)
"Kentucky Gambler" (1974)
"Always Wanting You" (1975)
"Movin' On" (1975)
"It's All in the Movies" (1975)
"The Roots of My Raising" (1975)
"Cherokee Maiden" (1976)
"Bar Room Buddies" (with Clint Eastwood) (1980)
"I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" (1980)
"My Favorite Memory" (1981)
"Big City" (1981)
"Yesterday's Wine" (with George Jones) (1982)
"Going Where the Lonely Go" (1982)
"You Take Me for Granted" (1982)
"Pancho and Lefty" (with Willie Nelson) (1983)
"That's the Way Love Goes" (1983)
"Someday When Things Are Good" (1984)
"Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room" (1984)
"A Place to Fall Apart" (with Janie Frickie) (1984)
"Natural High" (1985)
"Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star" (1987)
Academy of Country Music
1965 Most Promising Male Vocalist
1965 Best Vocal Group – with Bonnie Owens
1965 Top Vocal Duo with Bonnie Owens
1966 Top Male Vocalist
1967 Top Duo with Bonnie Owens
1969 Top Male Vocalist
1969 Album of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
1969 Song of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
1969 Single of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
1970 Entertainer of the Year
1970 Top Male Vocalist
1972 Top Male Vocalist
1974 Top Male Vocalist
1981 Top Male Vocalist
1982 Song of the Year – "Are the Good Times Really Over"
1995 Pioneer Award
2005 Triple Crown
2008 Poet's Award
2014 Crystal Milestone Award
2006 BMI Icon Award
Country Music Association
1970 Album of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
1970 Entertainer of the Year
1970 Male Vocalist of the Year
1970 Single of the Year – "Okie from Muskogee"
1972 Album of the Year – "Let Me Tell You About a Song"
1983 Vocal Duo of the Year – with Willie Nelson
Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
Inducted in 1994
1984 Best Country Vocal Performance, Male – "That's The Way Love Goes"
1998 Best Country Collaboration with Vocals with Clint Black, Joe Diffie, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart, Pam Tillis, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt & Dwight Yoakam for "Same Old Train"
1999 Grammy Hall of Fame Award – "Mama Tried"
2006 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
Kennedy Center Honors
Inducted in 2010
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame
Inducted in 1977
Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame
Inducted in 1997