Today, the world of music, especially the country genre, tragically lost one of the great voices and artist of its time. NY Times magazine reports that country music singer/songwriter/musician Merle Haggard, whose work has influenced bands of every variety and has topped the billboard charts for almost his entire career, was declared dead today, on his 7th birthday, after his long battle with double pneumonia. which had forced him to cancel many of his tour, at his ranch in Northern California, his agent, Lance Roberts confirms.
Merle Haggard is known for his successful collection if tracks about his rough early life and his time spent in prison which molded into a true real-life outlaw style, similar to Johnny Cash but with actual time spent serving in jail, as oppose to just performing in them. Haggard’s influence spreads far and wide in the musical community, he has been recognized as an influence on plenty of county singers, but also for 60’s rock bands like the Byrds and the Grateful Dead, who helped shape a generation, as well as performers like the Mekons and Elvis Costello, plus many others, several of which have covered Haggard’s songs. His song “Today I Started Loving You” has been covered by over 4oo different bands and artists.
“We’ve lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads. I loved him like a brother. Rest easy, Merle.” – Dolly Parton.
Haggard was born April 6th, 1937 in Oildale, California, a town just North of Bakersfield. At the age of 12 he was given a used guitar as a gift from his brother Lowell, and learned to play it on his own, sitting with his records of Bob Willis, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzle, Haggard slowly managed to carve out his own style of playing. Due to his father, James, passing away when he was a child, Merle had a tough time growing up, he would become progressively rebellious and in his early teens started committing minor offences, such as theft, check falsification, and shoplifting which landed him in juvenile detention center in 1950. At age 14 he ran away to Texas, embodying the true outlaw spirit riding freight trains and hitchhiking throughout the state. After several more run-ins with the law that landed him in many different detention centers, Haggard and his friend Teague went to see Lefty Frizzell live, where Frizzle had made Haggard join him on stage to sing and perform. He must have liked how the stage felt because that day he decided he would pursue a career in music.
Merle continued to have trouble with the law as he continued growing up, but upon his release from San Quentin prison in 1960, he began to perform more and more, eventually signing a record deal with Tally Records, and being an architect of what is called twangy Bakersfield Sound, which is a blend of blues, jazz, pop, and honky-tonk driven by guitar, truly defining Mr. Haggard’s work.
He wrote his first song “Skid Row” in 1962, but in 1964 he was given permission to record Wynn Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song” which resulted in it becoming that year’s national hit. His career took off after that, playing songs written by all types of artists in the country music community, recording his first number-one song “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive”, written by Liz Anderson, in 1966, and truly set the tone for his booming career, moving from Tally Records to Capitol Records where he partnered up with producer Ken Nelson whom he had a long and fruitful working relationship.
“Merle Haggard was an original. Not just a singer, not just a songwriter, not just another famous performer. He was your common everyday working man. I remember when I was 15 years old on tour with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. They both were wondering which one of the two was going to make it. Well, they both made it. Today, ole Merle joined Waylon, George, and daddy to sing in the Heavenly choir” – Hank Williams
Haggard had plenty of cross-genre appeal due to his versatility with his band the Strangers, where he sometimes played fiddle and lead guitar, but what captured the audience the most was his singing voice, a deeply expressive tool in his arsenal of talents that lends itself to a variety of tempos, emotions, and arrangements. Throughout his career recorded for a number of labels, reaching the top country chart over 100 times, and in 1985 he recorded a duet with legendary Willie Nelson, which earned them that year’s Grammy Award.
His career was not only limited to music, Haggard also appeared in several films, one of which being “Bronco Billy” by Clint Eastwood, the song “Bar Room Buddies” was a duet that was played in the movie which was recorded with Haggard and Eastwood, going on to become a No. 1 country hit.
In the final two decades of his career he would extensively record and tour throughout the country, playing enormous venues and casinos, festivals such as Bonnaroo in 2009, and many other epic shows, slowing down more and more, and spending more time with his family in Northern California.
A legend in the business and on the stage, Merle Haggard’s memory lives on through the tributes played for him, the covers to some of his songs, and the his children who have all decided to take on life as performers. His influence carries deep throughout the entire musical community and still will long after his death.
“We’ve lost another hero. Now he doesn’t have to be in pain anymore. I know he’s not suffering anymore. I just can’t imagine a world without Merle. It’s so hard to accept, but I’ll continue honoring him on stage just as I do during every show. We played a lot of gigs together through the years, but some of my fondest memories were hanging out in a natural setting, like the time we sat there by the river in his backyard and ate bologna sandwiches. Merle was a simple man with incredible talent like no other. And now he’s up there singing with George [Jones] and all the angels. Love you, Merle” – Tanya Tucker