Merle Haggard, one of country music’s greatest and most honoured artists, died on Wednesday, his 79th birthday.
While no cause of death has been announced, he recently cancelled a series of concerts, something he has done multiple times over the last year and, especially, in the last couple of months. In each case, he had been battling pneumonia or, in the last few months, double pneumonia in both lungs.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born in Oildale, CA after his parents moved from Oklahoma during the depression. His father died when he was 13 and his mother was forced to work while raising Merle and his two brothers.
Haggard began rebelling and getting into trouble regularly, ending up in a juvenile detention facility at the age of 14 for shoplifting. After his release, he ran away from home to Texas and, upon his return, he and a friend were falsely arrested for robbery. Although released on that charge, he continued to get in trouble and was sent to the detention facility a number of times from which he also escaped at least twice. He was eventually sentenced to the high security Preston School of Industry.
Throughout the time, when he wasn’t incarcerated, Haggard dabbled in music, playing in local clubs. One night, he was heard by Lefty Frizzell who demanded he come on stage with him in an incident that Haggard said made him take music seriously.
By 1957, he was married but sent to San Quentin Prison for attempting to rob a bar. It was there that he decided to turn his life around, playing in a prison country band after seeing Johnny Cash at the facility.
Upon his release in 1960, Merle did odd jobs while trying to further himself in music. Finally, in 1962, he signed with Tally Records which released his first single, Skid Row. Two years later, he recorded Wynn Stewart’s Sing a Sad Song which became his first charting hit, going to number 19 on the Country Singles.
In 1964, he hit the top ten for the first time with Liz Anderson’s (My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers and, two years later, began what would become a string of 61 consecutive top ten singles that would stretch until 1985 along with four additional top tens in collaboration with other artists. Included were such classics as Mama Tried, I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am, Okie From Muskogee, The Fightin’ Side of Me and If We Make It Through December.
Haggard’s style was firmly in the Bakersfield Sound, a more sophisticated country that was a reaction to the honky tonk coming out of Nashville at the time. He would later revive the sound of country swing with his Bob Wills tribute album A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (1970 / #2 Country / #58 Pop) which was his highest charting album on the Billboard 200 until the release of his collaboration with Willie Nelson, Pancho and Lefty (1983 / #1 Country / #37 Pop). Just last June, he eclipsed that record with another album with Nelson, Django and Jimmie which peaked at number 7 on the Billboard 200 to become the highest charting set of his career.
1972 was a banner year for Merle as then California governor Ronald Reagan pardoned him for his crimes and his first television special, Let Me Tell You About a Song, was aired. Two years later, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
Along with his top ten run, Haggard had 38 number 1 hits between 1966 and 1987 but changes in country music moved fans tastes in a different direction with the 1989 song A Better Love Next Time being his final top ten hit.
After a number of years of sparse recording, Haggard began a comeback in 2000, recording for Anti Records among other labels, leading up to his 2007 album Last of a Breed with Willie Nelson and Ray Price which put him back in the top 100 albums for the first time 24 years. He followed in 2010 with I Am What I Am.
Throughout the latter part of his life, Merle had health problems which he attributed to 41 years of smoking. He had angioplasty in 1985 and, in 2008, was diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer for which he had part of a lung removed. He continued to perform in the years since but had an increasing number of bouts with pneumonia.
Merle was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and was saluted at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. He has 19 ACM Awards, including a sweep of Album, Single and Song of the Year in 1969 for Okie From Muskogee, six CMA Awards and three Grammys.
Haggard is survived by his wife, Theresa Ann Lane and six children from five marriages.
Merle’s number 1 singles:
I’m a Lonesome Fugitive (1966)
Branded Man (1967)
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)
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