Merle Haggard composed the soundtrack of a generation of displaced Okies, Arkies and Texans — the rootlessness, the poverty, the field work — but he did it with such towering artistry
that the Oildale native, the son of a railroad man and God-fearing mother, belonged not just to Bakersfield but the world.
The poet of the working man died at 9:20 a.m. Wednesday — his 79th birthday — on his tour bus at his home near Redding surrounded by family, according
to Fuzzy Owen, his manager of 54 years, who was with the singer when he died.
The cause of death was not immediately available but for months Haggard had been suffering the effects of double pneumonia.
He had recently canceled a number of scheduled performances.
Haggard had asked to be taken out to the tour bus two or three days ago, said Owen. It was not unusual for the singer, who wrote so
effectively about his lifelong wanderlust, to stay on the bus while at home.
“You'd have to be a musician to understand,” said Owen, minutes before heading home to Bakersfield from Redding.
The reaction in Bakersfield on Wednesday was shock even though many knew Haggard was in poor condition.
Jim Shaw, bandleader for the late Buck Owens, met Haggard in early 1970 and recalled what his old boss —
a mentor of Haggard’s — thought of the singer.
“When Buck Owens through the years was asked who was the best country music singer/songwriter, it
was always Merle Haggard,” Shaw said. “There was no bigger fan of Merle Haggard than Buck Owens.”
Haggard, famously schooled on train rails and in jail cells, became a songwriter and vocalist of astonishing
power and skill, his gifts and blue-collar point-of-view earning the nickname Poet of the Common Man.
He chronicled love, loss, poverty and
pride with a poignant and resonant urgency that belied his nominal job description of country music singer
and placed him in the rarified company of American giants like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and George Gershwin.
Haggard experienced both life’s darkest depths and headiest highs, from a stint in San Quentin Prison, where he turned 21,
to recognition for lifetime achievement and "outstanding contribution to American culture" from the
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2010.
He won 19 awards from the Academy of Country Music, including six awards for male vocalist of the year,
six awards from the Country Music Association, including 1970’s entertainer of the year, and three Grammys.
Haggard wrote and recorded some of country music’s most memorable and commercially successful songs,
from “Mama Tried” to “Okie From Muskogee.” Between 1966 and 1987, Haggard and his band
recorded 38 songs that reached No. 1
on the Billboard country charts and another 33 that reached the top 10. By the time “If We Make It to December” hit No. 1 in 1973,
Haggard had already sold more than 8 million albums and 3.5 million singles worth $44.5 million.
His songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as the Everly Brothers and Elvis Costello, and one song alone, “Today I Started Loving You Again,”
has been recorded by more than 400 performers.
Along the way, Haggard, along with his equally famous contemporary, Buck Owens, and other notable players like Red Simpson,
Tommy Collins and Billy Mize, forged what became known as the Bakersfield Sound,
which in many ways was the antithesis of Nashville’s softer, more polished sound, especially throughout the 1960s.
Haggard would continue to live in Bakersfield throughout much of his commercial and artistic heyday, but he had a complicated relationship
with the city he made famous and his real hometown of Oildale, just over the Kern River from Bakersfield.
In January 2015, he visited, for the last time, the house he grew up in on Yosemite Drive,
just yards from the railroad tracks. A community group was in the process of raising funds to move the home,
a rail car converted by the singer’s father, to the Kern County Museum for restoration.
"I grew up here with intentions of escaping," Haggard said.
The Bakersfield Sound faded as a commercial force in the late 1970s but Haggard never stopped recording. Most recently,
he and his longtime friend and colleague, Willie Nelson, released “Django and Jimmie”
to critical acclaim in June 2015. Haggard remained an active performer, too; with his youngest son
Ben Haggard on lead guitar, the latest incarnation of his band, the Strangers, stayed remarkably busy.
Haggard craved it. “You people,” he once told an audience in Idaho, ”are keeping me alive.“
Merle Ronald Haggard was born at Kern General Hospital on April 6, 1937, and raised in Oildale, just across the Kern River from
Bakersfield. At that time, James Haggard, Merle’s father, had a $40-per-week job as a
carpenter with the Santa Fe Railroad, allowing him to support his family better than most Depression-era fathers.
He had also acquired a refrigerated box car that had been moved off the rails and onto a lot 100 yards
south of a heavily used main track line. This he fashioned into a sturdy, 1,200-square-foot home.
(The boxcar home was moved to the Kern County Museum in July and is undergoing renovations.)
Haggard demonstrated a love for music almost from the start. He recalls pointing to the radio and asking
for “stewed ham” — toddler talk, his mother eventually realized, for country singer Stuart Hamblen, whose 4 p.m. broadcast out of
Los Angeles was a family favorite. But the idyll of childhood was whisked away one night in
June 1946 when Merle came home from a Wednesday night prayer meeting to find his father
paralyzed from a stroke. James Haggard died the next day. It affected Merle, then 9, profoundly.
His mother, Flossie Haggard, was forced to take a $35-a-week job as a bookkeeper for a meat-packing company, and suddenly
it was just mother and son, the older siblings Lowell and Lillian having already set out on their own.
Haggard attended Standard School in Oildale, Mountain View School in Lamont, and, very briefly, Bakersfield
High School. He spent time in juvenile hall for truancy, and the experience probably did more harm than good.
He committed a string of petty crimes and jailhouse escapes that eventually landed him in San Joaquin Prison for almost two weeks.
That experience — along with a harrowing Huck Finn-meets-Harry Houdini youth, hopping freight trains, singing for beer,
stealing cars, surviving automobile wrecks,
botching burglaries, escaping from jails and, finally, serving time in one of California’s most notorious state
prisons — was more than ample fodder for the story lines that would comprise his prolific body of work.
In November 1960, San Quentin officials gave Haggard $15 and a bus ticket home. He’d spent seven of his 23 years inside
of one institution or another, locked up.
Back in Bakersfield, Haggard landed a fill-in job at the Lucky Spot, playing with fiddler Jelly Sanders and others on
the Tuesday and Wednesday nights when Johnny Barnett’s house band was off. It was there that he
met Charles “Fuzzy” Owen and Lewis Talley, cousins
from Arkansas who worked at the Lucky Spot as fill-in musicians and fancied themselves recording executives-in-training.
One day, Haggard’s brother-in-law, Bill Rea, took it upon himself to advance Merle’s career by making a cold call
to the producer of Cousin Herb’s “Trading Post,” a wildly popular daily Bakersfield television program. Haggard auditioned
and was added to the show’s lineup two afternoons a week.
Favorable fan mail started pouring in, and soon Haggard was performing five days a week on the “Trading Post.”
In 1962, Fuzzy Owen signed Haggard to Tally Records and later, on the strength of Haggard’s January 1965 top-10 hit,
“All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers,“ sold his contract to Capitol Records’ A&R man, Ken Nelson. A long succession of hits followed.
Between 1966 and 1987, Haggard and the Strangers were a formidable combo that featured guitarists Roy Nichols
and James Burton, Farmersville-bred steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, and cousins Owens and Talley.
In 1969, Haggard’s music took a sudden political turn with “Okie From Muskogee,” a phenomenon that
forever changed Haggard’s career, thrusting him into the firestorm of the 1960s culture wars.
The song was regaled as the anthem of the silent majority in the difficult days of mounting casualties in Vietnam,
anti-war demonstrations and counter-culture hippies. The song, recorded in
Hollywood on July 17, 1969, made Haggard the hottest commodity in country music, and a tough ticket at venues across the country.
As a single, the song sold 264,000 copies the first year, and as an album (“Okie” was the title track)
it surpassed 885,000 — making it one of the few country albums of the period to achieve gold-record status.
So great was Haggard’s association with all things conservative and traditional, George Wallace, through campaign intermediaries,
asked Haggard to endorse him in his bid for re-election as governor of Alabama. Ernest Tubb had already signed on but Haggard refused.
Haggard — a regular guest star on television variety shows hosted by Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Barbara Mandrell
and others — had become the darling of the American Right, a
fact made even more evident when in 1970 California Gov. Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full and unconditional pardon for past crimes.
Richard Nixon invited him to the White House in 1973 to sing at wife Pat’s staid birthday party.
In the early 1980s Haggard moved to Lake Shasta, 450 miles to the north, and locals saw him considerably less.
In 2008, a portion of Bakersfield’s 7th Standard Road, including the entrance to Kern County’s main commercial airport,
was renamed Merle Haggard Drive and Haggard had a freeway offramp with his name on it, just four miles north
of Buck Owens Boulevard. Bakersfield started seeing a lot more of Haggard after that.
Haggard was married five times, first, in 1956, to Leona Hobbs (they had four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli, Noel); in 1965 to singer
Bonnie Owens, former wife of Buck Owens; in 1978 to singer Leona Williams; and in 1985 to Debbie Parret.
On Sept. 11, 1993, Haggard’s friend and former collaborator, Tommy Collins, a minister, performed his wedding to
the former Theresa Ann Lane. The Haggards had two children, Jenessa and Ben.
A complete list of survivors was not available at press time. Funeral details had not been determined.
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