Country giant Merle Haggard, who rose from rags to riches and fame through his songs about outlaws, underdogs and national pride with hits like “Okie From Muskogee” and “Sing Me Back Home,” died yesterday at 79. It was his birthday.
Haggard’s manager, Frank Mull, said he died at home in Palo Cedro, California, of pneumonia that he had been battling for months and his family was by his side. The pneumonia in both lungs had forced him to cancel several shows this year.
Haggard — along with fellow California country star Buck Owens — was a founder of the twangy Bakersfield Sound, a direct contrast to the smooth, string-laden country records popular in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1960s.
His music was rough yet sensitive, reflecting on childhood, marriage and daily struggles, telling stories of shame and redemption, or just putting his foot down in “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”
His most loved songs included the prison ballad “Sing Me Back Home,” the tributes to his mother “Mama Tried” (featured above) and “Hungry Eyes,” the romantic lament “Today I Started Loving You Again” and such blue collar chronicles as “If We Make It Through December” and “Workin’ Man Blues.”
General audiences knew him best for “Okie From Muskogee,” a patriotic anthem released in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War that quickly became a hit .
Haggard’s family migrated from Oklahoma to California and lived as outsiders in their adopted state. Born in 1937 near Bakersfield, Haggard was raised in a converted railway boxcar, the only dwelling his parents could afford. When Haggard was 9, his father suddenly fell ill and died, leaving Haggard with lasting grief. He turned to petty crime and spent several years in and out of institutions.
He served three years in San Quentin as inmate 845200 for burglarizing a cafe during a drunken spree. It was during that stint he saw Johnny Cash play, and he returned to Bakersfield at age 22 in 1960 ready to write music. Singer-bandleader Wynn Stewart was an early patron, hiring Haggard to play bass in his group. Haggard’s first hit was a cover of Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song” and by 1966 he had been voted most promising vocalist by the Academy of Country and Western Music. He became a superstar in 1967, first with a cover of Liz Anderson’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” then with such originals as “Sing Me Back Home” and “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” featuring Glen Campbell on banjo.
Fame brought him respectability. His criminal record was erased by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who pardoned him in 1972, and he was invited by President Richard Nixon to sing at the White House. Officials in Kern County, where he spent his boyhood years, have since honoured his legacy by renaming a portion of road Merle Haggard Drive.
Haggard was active as ever in his 70s, and received strong reviews for his 2010 album “I Am What I Am.” He lived his last years outside Redding with his fifth wife, Theresa Lane. Haggard previously was married to singer Leona Williams, and to country crooner Bonnie Owens, the former wife of Buck Owens, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He is survived by six children.
When doctors found a spot on his lung in 2008, Haggard announced he didn’t plan to seek treatment. But after friends and family members convinced him otherwise, he had a tumour removed and vowed to keep performing.
A musical legend that will be missed.
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