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Merle Haggard (1937 – 2016)
Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Haggard, born April 6, 1937 in Bakersfield, Calif., passed away Wednesday, April 6. He was 79.
In an era when journalists and fans often saw Country artists through a prism of sub-genres – Outlaw, honky-tonk, Western swing, traditional, and so on – Merle Haggard was one of the few who defied easy categorization. More than that, his gifts as a songwriter stood him apart from nearly all of his contemporaries and earned him a place in Country Music’s most select company of performing balladeers, with Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, and very few others among his peers.
“Merle Haggard defined a generation and gave a new identity to the genre,” said Sarah Trahern, CMA Chief Executive Officer. “Country Music would not be what it is today without his musical influence, trailblazer spirit, outlaw mentality and undeniable talent. Our deepest condolences are with his family, friends, and fans around the world.”
His accomplishments were many. His catalog included nearly 600 songs, almost a third of them conceived without cowriters. Thirty-eight of them topped the Country charts, beginning with “The Fugitive” in 1966; one of these, “Today I Started Loving You Again,” has been covered nearly 400 times.
He was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977, the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame with its inaugural inductees in 1997 and in 2007, to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And in 1994, the Country Music Association’s anonymous board of selectors bestowed the genre’s greatest honor by welcoming him into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Along with dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones, composer Jerry Herman, Paul McCartney, and Oprah Winfrey, he was a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in 2010. His other accolades include a 1984 Grammy Award (Best Country Vocal Performance, Male, for “That’s the Way Love Goes”) and six CMA Awards, including the coveted Entertainer of the Year Award in 1970.
Little in Haggard’s early years suggested that his destiny was to become an American music icon. Born in Bakersfield, Calif., Haggard was the son of Oklahoma transplants. His father, a carpenter for the Santa Fe Railroad, earned just enough to house his family in an old boxcar they’d turned into living quarters. The elder Haggard’s sudden death from a stroke precipitated the 9-year-old boy’s slide into a life of rebellion and eventually crime. He ran away from home for the first time at age 10, riding a freight train as far as Fresno. At 15 he was briefly jailed when falsely convicted of robbery. Just five years later, in 1958, convicted this time of burglary and attempted escape from a county jail, he was sentenced to two and a half years at San Quentin.
Haggard put his time there to good use, taking high school equivalency courses and playing with fellow inmates in a Country band. When released in 1960, he returned to Bakersfield and committed himself full-time to music. Two years later, Haggard got a gig playing bass with Wynn Stewart in Las Vegas; his first single, a Stewart composition titled “Sing a Sad Song,” followed in 1964 on the Tally Records imprint. And when he broke into the Top 10 with one of his own songs, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” Capitol Records took note and signed him. (In later years, he would record for Curb, Epic and MCA, among other labels.) His first No. 1 singles came in 1967: the Casey Anderson/Liz Anderson song “The Fugitive” and a Haggard original, “Branded Man.”
Many more were to follow, a good number of them now considered classics. Real-life themes threaded through Haggard’s works – themes of desperation (“Hungry Eyes”), regret (“Mama Tried”), restlessness (“White Line Fever”), and fury over life’s injustices (“Workin’ Man Blues”). Few songs in any genre drew as deeply from the heart’s capacity for sorrow over the loss of love (“Silver Wings”) and life itself (“Sing Me Back Home”). Few captured that volatile blend of irony, resignation, and anger that simmers in the heat of neon saloon lights as evocatively as Haggard (“Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down”). Whether defiant (“The Fightin’ Side of Me”) or humorous (“Okie from Muskogee”), his lyrics spelled out his beliefs with conviction and plain-spoken eloquence.
Like his singles, Haggard’s album catalog offers plenty of releases made memorable not just by their consistent excellence but also by their eclecticism. These include duo projects with George Jones (A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine, 1982) and Nelson (Pancho & Lefty, 1983) and celebrations of Jimmie Rodgers (Same Train, a Different Time), Bob Wills (A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World), traditional jazz (I Love Dixie Blues), and bluegrass (The Bluegrass Sessions).
The singer/songwriter also left his mark with “Sing Me Back Home,” an autobiography written with Peggy Russell, and several appearances as an actor on television (“Centennial,” “The Waltons”) and in film (“Killer Three” and in a singing duet with Clint Eastwood in “Bronco Billy”).
Haggard battled health issues in his final years, though he also kept a busy working schedule. In 2008, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his lungs but was back onstage just two months later. In this stage of his career his output included songs that were inspired by the possibilities (“Hopes Are High”) and bitter over the failures (“That’s the News”) of modern politics. He defended the Dixie Chicks when they were assailed for their views of President Bush, developed a fascination with UFOs and snarled his outrage in a Rolling Stone interview over DEA agents who insisted on flying over his California property to check out exactly what he was growing.
He was to the end a singular figure in and beyond Country Music, a bard blessed with the gift of turning his extraordinary story into songs that nearly everyone could embrace as if they had written each one themselves.