Country giant Merle Haggard, the influential artist known best for hits including “Okie From Muskogee” and “Sing Me Back Home,” has died. He was 79. Haggard died Wednesday, on his birthday, of pneumonia, according to multiple news sources, including The Associated Press.
Country giant Merle Haggard, the influential artist known best for hits including “Okie From Muskogee” and “Sing Me Back Home,” has died. He was 79.
Haggard died Wednesday, on his birthday, of pneumonia, according to multiple news sources, including The Associated Press.
Haggard was one of the greats of outlaw country, the rough-and-ready genre spawned in opposition to the smooth “Nashville sound” that dominated country music in the 1950s and ’60s. Haggard and his outlaw peers – Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and others – thumbed their noses at the polished music coming out of Nashville and played raw tunes that harked back to country’s honky-tonk origins. Along with the hard-edge sound came an authentic look that shunned the pompadours and Nudie suits of Nashville in favor of long hair and beards, denim, and leather.
The favorite themes of outlaw country include hard drinking and jail time – two topics with which Haggard had up close and personal experience. First incarcerated as a young teen who went to juvenile detention for shoplifting, he was in and out of juvie throughout his teens. He was not quite 21 when he was sent to San Quentin Prison after a robbery attempt.
It’s debatable whether the prison time truly reformed him, given that he spent time in solitary for operating a brewing racket, but it did help set him on the path he’d follow in the years to come. Inspired by a Johnny Cash concert at San Quentin in 1958, Haggard joined the prison’s country band.
He came to that prison band with musical experience, having taken up the guitar years earlier and taught himself by playing along with records by his favorite country musicians. Born April 6, 1937, in Oildale, California, a suburb of Bakersfield, Haggard grew up in a boxcar that his father converted into a house. His father died in 1945, an event that deeply affected the young boy, who was very close to his dad. As he grew up, during his times out of juvenile detention, Haggard tried to pursue a musical career, gaining the appreciation of country legend Lefty Frizzell and playing on a local TV show, “Chuck Wagon.”
But it was only after Haggard’s prison time that his career would begin to find its groove. Released in 1960 and returning home to Bakersfield, he was in the right place at the right time to start soaking up the burgeoning “Bakersfield sound.” Local stars including Buck Owens were putting honky-tonk back into country as a precursor to the outlaw movement, and Haggard embraced it as he began to record in earnest. His authentic sounds soon brought him national notice, and by 1964, he had a top-10 country hit with “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers.” The track’s success prompted him to name his band the Strangers. The often-shifting membership roster of the band that would back Haggard throughout his career included a young Glen Campbell.
Haggard found his way to the top of the charts for the first time in 1967 with “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” the first of 38 Haggard songs that would make it to No. 1 on the country chart. It, like a number of his early hits, was written by Liz and Casey Anderson, but Haggard also composed his own tunes. That includes one of his most enduring hits, “Mama Tried,” a chart-topper in 1968. The frequently covered tune was semi-autobiographical, reflecting on the pain Haggard caused his mother while he served jail time at San Quentin.
Another top hit written by Haggard, along with co-writer Roy Edward Burris, was 1969’s “Okie From Muskogee.” Intended as a gentle parody of anti-hippie patriotism, it waxes poetic about the upstanding people of Muskogee, Oklahoma, who don’t do drugs, grow their hair long, or disagree with the Vietnam War. Though Haggard supported the troops, he wrote “Okie From Muskogee” with a bit of satire in mind, but it wasn’t taken that way by the listening public, who put it on a pedestal as a conservative anthem. It netted Haggard a number of invitations to play at President Richard Nixon’s White House, and it even earned him a full pardon for his 1957 conviction from California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Haggard would continue charting No. 1 hits throughout the 1970s and the first half of the ’80s, with his final No. 1 coming in 1987 with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star.” Others included “Sing Me Back Home” (1968), “Grandma Harp” (1972), “Always Wanting You” (1975), and, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (1980).
Haggard continued to record for the rest of his life, releasing his final album, a collaboration with Willie Nelson titled “Django & Jimmie,” in 2015.
Haggard worked with Nelson a number of times, with the duo recording six albums together. It was one of several fruitful partnerships Haggard formed over the years. He recorded a pair of albums with George Jones, and he did duets with greats including Porter Wagoner, Dwight Yoakam, and Bakersfield sound pioneer Buck Owens.
Though Haggard remained a force in country music throughout his life and continued making new recordings, he didn’t have much patience for the songs he heard on modern country radio. In a 2003 interview with LiveWire, he called contemporary country music “… a lot different than what I call country. I really don’t think that’s what it is. It’s sort of country without the grit, you know? Pretty generic and pretty smooth.” Asked what contemporary singers he did like, he cited the jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall.
Contemporary country musicians, however, revered Haggard as a pioneer and an influence, and they poured out their grief on social media upon hearing of his death. Carrie Underwood tweeted, “Merle was a pioneer … a true entertainer … a legend. There will never be another like him.” Jason Aldean called him “one of the greatest of all time,” while Jason Isbell opined that he was “the best country songwriter there ever was.”
Haggard’s classic-country contemporaries mourned his loss as well. Nelson released a statement noting, “He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him.” Charlie Daniels tweeted, “Country music has suffered one of the greatest losses it will ever experience.”
Haggard won Grammy awards in 1984, for “That’s the Way Love Goes,” and 1998, for his collaboration “Same Old Train.” In 1999, “Mama Tried” was given the Grammy Hall of Fame Award. It is also preserved in the National Recording Registry as a culturally significant song.
Haggard won 19 awards from the Academy of Country Music, and he took home top male vocalist honors six times. He won six Country Music Association awards and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977. In 2006, he was named a BMI Icon, and in 2010, he received the Kennedy Center Honors. A stretch of road in his hometown of Oildale was named Merle Haggard Drive in 2006.
Haggard was married five times, with his first four unions ending in divorce. His fifth wife, Theresa Ann Lane, survives him, as do his children, Dana, Marty, Kelli, Noel, Jenessa, and Ben.
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