Music legend Merle Haggard was born on this day in 1937—and died on this day in 2016, at age 79 due to complications from pneumonia. Through his sterling music, including “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Silver Wings,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and many others, Haggard became one of the most influential singer-songwriters in country music.
He served a nearly three-year stint in San Quentin before being paroled in 1960. Five years later, he released his first album, Strangers, and earned his first Top 10 country hit with “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers.” In 1967, he earned his first No. 1 country hit with “The Fugitive.”
Haggard went on to earn more than 30 No. 1 hits, and was named the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year honor in 1970. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, earned a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010.
In celebration of Haggard’s life and indelible musical contributions, we look a just a few of his most impactful songs.
A solo write from Haggard, this four-week No. 1 hit was featured in the 1968 film Killers Three, which Haggard starred in. In the stark song, he minces no words about the pain that his rebellious childhood must have caused his mother, in lyrics such as Mama tried to raise me better, But her pleadin’ I denied, That leaves only me to blame ’cause mama tried
The song earned a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.
This 1969 hit paid tribute to a faithful mother trying to do her best to raise her family on little money, even when that means going without things she wanted. Though Haggard’s family did not live in a labor camp, the song was inspired by his mother, who kept the family together after Haggard’s father died when Haggard was nine years old.
“Sing Me Back Home”
This 1967 release was the first single and title track to Haggard’s album Sing Me Back Home. The song drew from Haggard’s relationship with two of Haggard’s fellow inmates. The song finds Haggard taking on the role of a guitar-playing inmate. As he rises to watch as another inmate is taken to be executed, that inmate asks to hear one final song.
“Okie From Muskogee”
Haggard’s signature song was a four-week No. 1 in 1969, and earned Single of the Year from the Country Music Association. Though the song wasn’t meant to be taken literally, many listeners took it to be a chest-thumping anthem against the hippie counterculture, praising those who don’t burn their draft cards or smoke marijuana. Either way, the song became one of Haggard’s most enduring hits.
“The Fightin’ Side of Me”
After the success of “Okie From Muskogee,” Haggard followed it with a three-week No. 1, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” in 1970. In this solo-penned track, Haggard made it clear how he felt about America’s politics at the time.