Wednesday, April 6, 2016
– Merle Haggard, who sang of hard times and epitomized traditional country music and the Bakersfield Sound, died today at 79 on his birthday after battling pneumonia, Associated Press is reporting.
The Hag, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, has been sick off and on since December, having had to cancel a number of shows.
Haggard grew up just north of Bakersfield and numerous run-ins with the law, leading to a stint at San Quentin State Prison. His backdrop also provided a series of hits including "Swingin' Doors," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive," "Sing Me Back Home," "Okie From Muskogee," "The Fightin' Side Of Me," "If We Make It Through December," "That's The Way Love Goes," "Footlights," "My Favorite Memory," "Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)."
Haggard recorded more than 70 albums and had 38 number 1 songs.
He was born April 6, 1937 in Bakersfield, Cal. to Jim and Flossie Haggard, who moved their from Oklahoma. Jim Haggard, a railroad carpenter, died of a stroke in 1946. His father's death affected Merle. His brother gave him his used guitar as a gift when he was 12 years old. He learned to play alone with records he had at home. Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams all influenced the young Haggard.
Merle ran away from home a number of times and spent time in at least two separate reform schools. He found jobs as a laborer, played and sang informally including at Southern California clubs. He also did time in local jails for bad checks and theft.
At 20, Hag got drunk and burglarized a Bakersfield roadhouse. Following an attempted escape from a county jail, he was sent to San Quentin. In 1958, a performance there by Johnny Cash convinced Haggard to join the prison country band. He was paroled in 1960 and eventually got a job playing bass for Wynn Stewart in Las Vegas. His experiences in jail ended up playing a big role in his views and songcraft with a number of songs about prisoners and life behind bars.
Two years later, Haggard signed to the small Tally Records label where he recorded five singles. His fourth, "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," became a hit, reaching the Billboard Top 10. The song was penned by Liz Anderson, mother of country singer Lynn Anderson. The hit led Haggard to sign with Capitol Records thanks to label head Ken Nelson. Haggard would remain for about a decade. He later recorded for MCA, Epic, Curb, Epitaph, Capitol again and Vanguard. His most recent release was "Django & Jimmie," a recording he did with Willie Nelson, which came out in 2015.
Haggard's very first album, "Strangers," came out in 1965 and was an immediate hit, reaching nine on the Billboard charts. The disc included Haggard's first Top 10 hit, "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers."
"Strangers" was the start of 10 albums released by the end of the decade with nine making the top 10. He had number 1 albums with "Swinging Doors" in 1966, "Branded Man/I Threw Away the Rose" in 1967, "Sing Me Back Home" in 1968 and "Same Train, A Different Time," a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, in 1969. To say that Haggard was prolific would be an understatement as he released three albums apiece in 1968 and 1969.
Haggard had a stellar backup band including Roy Nichols on Telecaster, Ralph Mooney on steel guitar and Bonnie Owens, who was his wife at one point, on backing vocals.
During this period, Haggard recorded "Okie from Muskogee," which either was taken as a humorous song or else a diatribe by the Hag against those opposed to the Viet Nam War. The song became a huge hit at concerts and was considered his signature song.
He followed that up with another big hit, "The Fightin' Side of Me," which made clear Haggard's conservative views. Ironically, Haggard had wanted to release "Irma Jackson," a song about interracial love, but Nelson discouraged him from doing so.
The hit albums continued through the 1970s and 1980s. During the Seventies, he was part of the outlaw country music of Nelson, Waylon Jennings and others.
He published an autobiography "Sing Me Back Home" in 1981.
While moving ahead with his own career, Haggard also recorded with others, including George Jones ("Yesterday's Wine") in1982 and Nelson ("Pancho and Lefty") the following year.
Haggard also faced personal demons during the decade Following his split with his third wife, Leona Williams, in 1983, Haggard became involved with drugs and alcohol. At one point, he was addicted to cocaine. He also suffered financial problems, which would continue into the '90s.
Haggard's final number one hit was "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star" from "Chill Factor" in 1988.
He would release three albums on Curb in the 1990s, but none clicked. He would later put out two acclaimed albums for the Anti- label, "If I Could Only Fly" in 2000 and "Roots, Volume 1" the following year.
Haggard maintained a busy touring schedule, even as he aged and continued to record. He gained some acclaim for a disc he put out with Nelson and Ray Price, "Last of the Breed," in 2007 and touring with them.
He was married five times, marrying his fifth wife, Theresa Ann Lane, on Sept. 11, 1993.
In December 2015, Haggard was treated at a California hospital for pneumonia. He recovered, but postponed concerts, although he played several in California in February. He died at his home in Palo Cedro, Cal.