Merle Haggard, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and one of the most influential singer-songwriters in the field’s long history, died Wednesday morning (April 6) — on his 79th birthday — in California following a lengthy illness.
Haggard, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008, had been battling pneumonia since December.
He was in and out of reform schools, county jails for petty offenses, and finally (after a botched 1957 roadhouse burglary) he did time in San Quentin State Prison. Paroled in 1960 (and pardoned in 1972 by California Gov. Ronald Reagan), the former nightclub singer found work in Las Vegas as a member of Wynn Stewart’s band, after which record producer Fuzzy Owen signed him to Bakersfield’s Tally Records. Haggard’s fourth Tally single was Liz Anderson’s “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” a Top 10 hit in 1965 which not only named his talented backup band, the Strangers, but became his ticket that year to Capitol Records, the West Coast’s major country label.
Haggard’s long stream of hit records (20-plus years without interruption) were mostly self-written and defy easy classification. Some were autobiographical, like “Mama Tried” and “Hungry Eyes” about his mother’s struggles, or “Branded Man” and “Sing Me Back Home,” from his prison experiences. You’d expect a man who married five times to sing love songs, and his were among the best: “Today I Started Loving You Again” (a hit for Haggard and recorded by over 400 other artists), “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad),” and “If We’re Not Back In Love by Monday.” The former nightclub singer gave us some of the best drinking songs in a genre famous for them — “Swinging Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Threw Away the Rose,” “Misery & Gin” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
Though he obviously didn’t want it to obscure his other work, Haggard became famous for social and political commentary in song. He took the working man’s side on economic issues — “Working Man Blues,” “If We Make It Through December,” “Big City,” “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver),” “Rainbow Stew,” “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today” — and voiced that same working man’s anti-protester mentality during the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War with his mega-hits “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (“When you’re runnin’ down our country, hoss, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of me.”). Vietnam POWs gained his sympathy in “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me” (1972), and anger at flag-burning provoked his 1988 ballad “Me and Crippled Soldiers.” Small wonder he performed at Republican White House socials for fellow Californians Richard Nixon and Reagan.
Haggard’s vocals were a distinctive variant of his hero, Lefty Frizzell, and doubtless influenced such later stars as George Strait, Randy Travis and Alan Jackson. Over his long career, he experimented with a variety of instrumental backings, highlighting the work of his award-winning Strangers band (with lead guitarist Roy Nichols and steel guitarist Norman Hamlet at its core) but sometimes featuring his own work on fiddle or electric lead guitar.
Unique as his voice was, it still managed to blend well on duet hits with a good many artists. He had No. 1 hits with singers as different as Clint Eastwood (“Bar Room Buddies,” 1980), George Jones (“Yesterday’s Wine,” 1982), Willie Nelson (“Pancho and Lefty,” 1983), and Janie Fricke (“A Place to Fall Apart,” 1984). He had charted singles with not one but two of his wives — “Just Between the Two of Us” in 1964 with Bonnie Owens (actually that was the year before they married, and yes, she was Buck’s former wife) and “The Bull and the Beaver,” a Top 10 hit with Leona Williams in 1978, the year they married. Even George Jones and Willie Nelson only charted with one wife apiece (Tammy Wynette and Shirley Collie respectively).
Like Buck Owens before him, the handsome, dark-haired Haggard always kept his distance both creatively and geographically from the Nashville country music establishment, working from a base near Redding, Calif, and doing much of his own production work after switching labels to MCA in 1976, Epic in 1981 and Curb in 1990. He celebrated his individuality in songs like “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” “My Own Kind of Hat” and “The Way I Am.” Still, in his heyday, that establishment could hardly help from lavishing him with highly-deserved awards. He swept the CMAs in 1970 and won election to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, and he won even more numerous awards and nominations from the West Coast-based Academy of Country Music.
But since the 1990s, as befell so many other artists inside and outside that establishment, radio seemed to have no airtime for new recordings by this “living legend.” Adding to his malaise in those later years was the fact that his skills as a businessman were unfortunately closer to those of Willie Nelson (both had tax troubles) than to financially-astute artists such as Gene Autry, Buck Owens and Eddy Arnold.
In 2000, Haggard signed with Anti Records, the independent rock label, and released If I Could Only Fly, which received critical acclaim, and Roots, Vol. 1, which included cover versions of songs popularized by Frizzell, Hank Williams and Hank Thompson.
His 2003 album, Haggard Like Never Before, found him delving back into social commentary with “That’s the News.” The song was partially inspired by President Bush’s assertion earlier in the year that major military combat operations were winding down in Iraq. It also criticized the news media for concentrating more on celebrity news than more important issues facing the nation. In 2005, he released Chicago Wind, an album containing “America First,” a song suggesting that the nation’s focus should return to domestic issues rather than international affairs.
Haggard’s continued influence on younger artists was evident in “Politically Uncorrect,” a duet with Gretchen Wilson on her 2005 album, All Jacked Up.
He teamed with longtime friends Ray Price and Willie Nelson to release Last of the Breed, a two-CD set released in 2007. Backed by Asleep at the Wheel, the three icons found box office success during a national tour. Later in 2007, he released The Bluegrass Sessions, a project produced by Ronnie Reno and released by McCoury Music, Del McCoury’s label. On the bluegrass project, Alison Krauss and Haggard sang a duet of his song, “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” and the sessions also featured Marty Stuart, Carl Jackson, Rob Ickes, and Aubrey Haynie.
In 2007, Haggard also gained national media attention for writing and recording “Let’s Put a Woman in Charge,” a song about Hillary Clinton. While most news reports equated it as an endorsement of her presidential campaign, Haggard never formally offered his support and later distanced himself from the song.
In August 2008, Haggard told The Californian newspaper in Bakersfield that a growth in his lung discovered four months earlier. He said the tumor was not malignant and that he had no plans to have it removed. However, he underwent surgery in November at a Bakersfield hospital to remove the tumor from his right lung. His wife, Theresa, confirmed that he had been diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer.
Following the surgery, Haggard was back onstage within several weeks and resumed a full tour schedule in early 2009. In March, the Academy of Country Music announced that Haggard and the late Harlan Howard were the 2009 recipients of the organization’s Poets Award for their songwriting achievements. In June, Haggard performed in Manchester, Tenn., at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, an event that also featured Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Phish, Nine Inch Nails, Elvis Costello and many other rock acts.
Haggard signed to Vanguard Records in 2010 and released I Am What I Am, following it with Working in Tennessee in 2011.
Haggard was presented the first-ever CMT Artist of a Lifetime award in 2014 during the CMT Artists of the Year ceremony in Nashville.
In 2015, he was featured on a “The Cost of Living,” a duet featured on Don Henley’s Cass County album.
Haggard and Willie Nelson collaborated on the 2015 album, Django & Jimmie, a project inspired by the music of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers.