Country music star Merle Haggard was born near Bakersfield, California, in 1937. Originally a troubled youngster who served time in San Quentin prison, Haggard grew to become a country music legend. With 38 No. 1 hits and 250 original songs, Haggard remains one of the best-known and most covered artists in country music.
The Lonesome Fugitive
Merle Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, near Bakersfield, California. The son of a railroad worker, Haggard grew up in Depression-era California and lived with his family in a box car that they had converted into their home. As a child, he was plagued by a respiratory condition, which frequently kept him out of school and confined to bed rest. In 1945 life grew even more difficult when his father died of a stroke, forcing his mother to find work and leave her young son in the care of family members.
Left to his own devices, Haggard developed into a rebellious teen, compiling a criminal record that included such offenses as truancy, passing phony checks and grand theft auto. At the same time, he nurtured a musical talent that he had inherited from his father—who had been a fiddle player and guitarist before starting a family—teaching himself to play the guitar. As he got older his escalating juvenile delinquency frequently landed him in reform facilities and county jails, but when he wasn't serving time he worked in the oil fields during the day and indulged his love of music at night, playing guitar in local bars and clubs.
In 1958, at the age of 20, Merle Haggard was sent to San Quentin prison after being convicted for burglary and attempted escape from county jail. While serving a 2 1/2-year term, he played in the prison's country band and took high school equivalency courses. He also was a member of the audience when Johnny Cash made his legendary 1959 performance at the prison. (Haggard would later be officially pardoned in 1972 by then governor of California Ronald Reagan.)
Upon his parole in 1960, Haggard returned to Bakersfield, where he sang and played guitar in the honky-tonks of "Beer Can Hill," the hub of the city's burgeoning country music scene, whose grittier sound stood in contrast to the softer and safer country music coming out of Nashville.
After gaining a loyal local following in his hometown, Haggard traveled to Las Vegas, where he began playing bass guitar for Wynn Stewart. In 1962, he signed with a small label called Tally Records, for whom he recorded five songs, including his debut single "Sing a Sad Song," which rose to No. 19 on the country charts. In 1965 Haggard formed his own backing band, the Strangers, before signing with Capitol Records, and later that year, the band released their debut self-titled album. Their follow-up album, Swinging Doors, reached No. 1 on the country charts the following year, and in 1967 their single "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" did the same. Later that year, Haggard doubled down on their runaway success with "Branded Man," his first self-penned No. 1 song.
During the remainder of the 1960s, Haggard churned out a string of No. 1 singles, culminating with what would become his signature song and his most controversial recording, "Okie from Muskogee." Released in 1969, the song became an anthem for middle Americans whose patriotism and traditional values were under attack from Vietnam War protesters and hippies. "Okie from Muskogee" crossed over to the pop charts and in 1970 earned Haggard the Country Music Association's Awards for Single, Entertainer and Top Male Vocalist of Year. The album of the same name also won Album of the Year.
A Working Man
Since then, Haggard has released close to 70 albums and 600 songs, 250 of which he has written himself. Among his most memorable albums were The Fightin' Side of Me (1970), Someday We'll Look Back (1971), If We Make It Through December (1974) and A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today (1977). In 1982, Haggard recorded a duet album with George Jones called A Taste of Yesterday's Wine, which yielded the chart toppers "Yesterday's Wine" and "C.C. Waterback." The following year, he collaborated with Willie Nelson to record the widely praised compilation Pancho & Lefty. In addition to an impressive title track, Pancho & Lefty featured the touching ballads "It's My Lazy Day," "Half a Man," "Reasons to Quit" and "All the Soft Places to Fall."
Haggard was elected to the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1977. In 1994, his wealth of artistic achievements, including 38 No. 1 hits, earned him an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Though his musical output has waned over the years, he has continued to find success with albums such as If I Could Fly (2000), Haggard Like Never Before (2003) and his 2015 reunion album with Willie Nelson, Djano & Jimmie, which landed Haggard atop the country music charts one more time.
Hopes Are High
In 2008, Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Reflecting on the situation, he referred to it as "the greatest test of my fortitude." Following a speedy recovery, Haggard returned to touring and writing songs, one of which was inspired by President Barack Obama, called "Hopes Are High." Although Haggard did not vote for Obama, the song captures the feelings of optimism he inspired during his campaign.
Haggard was married to Leona Hobbs from 1956 to 1964 and to Buck Owens's ex-wife and fellow country singer Bonnie Owens from 1965 to 1978. Two more failed marriages followed—to backup singer Leona Williams and to Debbie Parrett. At the time of his death, Haggard was married to Theresa Lane, whom he wed in 1993. He has four children from his first marriage to Hobbs and two children with Lane.
Sing Me Back Home
Haggard died at home on his Northern California Ranch on April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday. The 11 days he spent trying to recover from his illness had become so difficult that he reportedly told his friends and family that he would die on his birthday. He had been suffering from double pneumonia and had to cancel a string of scheduled concerts with Willie Nelson.
Haggard's death quickly led to an outpouring of tributes not only from within the music world but also well beyond, with a diverse range of admirers from Larry King and Michael Moore to Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan all turning to Twitter to pay their respects. His friend and longtime collaborator Willie Nelson posted a picture of the two of them together, accompanied by the simple message: "He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him."
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