Merle Haggard, Legend of Country Music, Dies at 79

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Merle Haggard

The Bakersfield singer-songwriter, who thrived after an early life of crime and a prison term in San Quentin, died on his birthday.

Merle Haggard, who overcame a youth of deprivation and imprisonment to become one of the enduring figures in hardcore country music, died Wednesday on his 79th birthday.

The singer underwent surgery for lung cancer in 2008 and had been hospitalized for various ailments over the past few years — most notably for pneumonia, which forced several concert postponements and cancellations in 2015 and this year. He died at his home in Northern California, his agent said.

Haggard was born April 6, 1937, in Oildale, Calif., outside Bakersfield; his family had emigrated three years earlier from the Oklahoma dust bowl. The Haggards lived in a converted boxcar, and Merle’s father died when he was 9.

As a teen, Haggard became a delinquent and petty criminal. He hadn’t turned 20 when he was sentenced to a three-year stretch in San Quentin on a burglary conviction. While in prison, he witnessed a performance by Johnny Cash, an event he later characterized as life-changing.

Released in 1960, Haggard, who had fallen under the spell of the hard-hitting 1950s honky-tonk country star Lefty Frizzell, began playing clubs in the Bakersfield area, also an incubator for nascent country star Buck Owens. He joined singer Wynn Stewart’s band, and, with his own group The Strangers, began recording for Tally Records, an independent label run by his manager, Fuzzy Owen.

Haggard’s first hit single, a cover of Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song” (1964) became a top 20 country hit in 1963; a top 10 smash, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” followed in 1965. At that point, Capitol Records — then one of the biggest country hit machines — acquired Haggard’s Tally contract.

The singer-songwriter’s tenure at Capitol produced a string of classic recordings featuring his mellifluous baritone and keenly observed songs. Some, like the barroom odes “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down,” were in the classic honky-tonk mold; others, such as “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Mama Tried,” were inspired by his days in the pen.

Haggard logged eight No. 1 singles in 1966-69 alone. One of these, “Okie From Muskogee,” became a touchstone for debate at the height of the Vietnam War era.

Proclaiming “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee” and extolling the virtues of “a place where even squares can have a ball,” Haggard ran afoul of the left. He responded to the rebukes with another single, “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” that rose to the top of the country chart in 1970.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Haggard saluted his influences on a string of albums that included the Jimmie Rodgers tribute Same Train, Different Time (1969), the Bob Wills homage A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (1970) and I Love Dixie Blues … So I Recorded 'Live' in New Orleans (1973), which tipped the hat to the eccentric minstrel performer Emmett Miller. The records delineated the confluence of early country, jazz and Western swing in his own music.

Haggard’s run of No. 1 country hits, which included such indelible numbers as the tender “If We Make It Through December” and the reflective “The Roots of My Raising,” continued through the late 1970s, when he moved from Capitol to MCA. Though the stream of hits slowed, he gained his stride again at the turn of the decade. He released the powerful and introspective album Serving 180 Proof in 1979, and Clint Eastwood cast him and featured his memorable “Misery and Gin” in his 1980 feature Bronco Billy.

In 1981, Haggard shifted labels again to Epic Records. He enjoyed several No. 1 hits in his own right there, including “Going Where the Lonely Go,” “You Take Me for Granted,” “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “Someday When Things Are Good” and “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room.” He also cut chart-topping duets with peers and labelmates George Jones (“Yesterday’s Wine,” 1982) and Willie Nelson (“Pancho and Lefty,” 1983).

The 1990s proved to be largely fallow for Haggard, who had a frustrating stint at Curb Records. In 1994, he was feted by performers of the burgeoning alt-country movement on the tribute album Tulare Dust as well as on the Arista disc Mama’s Hungry Eyes, which contained Haggard classics performed by artists such as Alan Jackson, Vince Gill and Pam Tillis. The year culminated with his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. As the decade progressed, growing interest in country elders like Cash set the stage for another revival of his career.

In 2000, Haggard signed a deal with Anti Records, a new imprint aimed at older listeners launched by Los Angeles punk label Epitaph Records. His Anti bow If I Could Only Fly — cut, like his other latter-day projects, at the studio at his California ranch near Lake Shasta — renewed his reputation and brought his music to a previously untapped audience. He followed with Roots Volume 1, a tribute to such country precursors as Frizzell, Hank Williams and Hank Thompson.

After garnering considerable coverage in 2003 with “That’s the News,” his sharply critical song about media coverage of the Iraq war, Haggard founded his own independent label Hag Records, distributed by Nashville-based Compendia Music. An album, Haggard Like Never Before, followed. He would then return to Capitol in 2004-05 for a pair of standards albums, Unforgettable and Chicago Wind.

Celebrated as a Kennedy Center Honors recipient in December 2010, his most recent solo studio album was 2011's Working In Tennessee, released on Vanguard. Haggard reteamed with Nelson in 2015 for the Sony Legacy release Django & Jimmie, which topped the Country Albums chart, also peaking at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 — his highest ranking ever on the overall listing. His 38 chart-toppers on the Country Singles chart are third only to George Strait (44) and Conway Twitty (40).

Haggard was the recipient of two Grammys and was the only California-born inductee in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The singer is survived by fifth wife, Theresa Ann Lane, and his six children.

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