He was dubbed “The Poet Of The Common Man.”
With the passing of Merle Haggard – on his 79th birthday – this morning, one of the most distinctive song stylists in musical history takes his final bow.
Over the course of his five-decade plus recording career, Merle Haggard sang songs for those in good times – and bad. When he sang about prison, it was a life that he knew – having served time in San Quentin. When he sang about heartbreak, he had the scars – and four marriages to prove it.
At the end of the day, however, Merle Haggard put his personal struggles behind him, enjoying a career that earned him a spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as finding love at the end.
Born Ronald Merle Haggard on April 6, 1937 in the boxcar of a train in Oildale, California. His father, James Francis Haggard, died when he was only eight. Despite the efforts of his mother to raise him in a proper manner, Haggard ran wild as a teenager, and committed a number of minor offenses – for which he was briefly sent to a juvenile detention facility in 1950. As he got older, the crimes became worse. A young husband and father in financial dire straits, he was arrested for attempting to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse. His reward would eventually be a trip to San Quentin Prison in 1958. He would sat there for two years until his release in 1960.
Once out of prison, Haggard began doing some odd jobs for his brother, but it was music – always a passion – that drew his attention next. He played at several clubs in the Bakersfield area, even serving for a short time in the band of Buck Owens. Incidentally, it was Haggard that gave the band its’ name – The Buckaroos.
As word grew of his talent, Haggard signed a contract with Tally Records – where he charted with “Sing A Sad Song” in 1963-64. Capitol Records soon became aware of the singer, and acquired him in 1965. He reached the top ten for the first time in 1965 with “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers.” With that – plus his marriage to Bonnie Owens – he was on his way to becoming a major musical force.
1966 brought the first of thirty-eight chart toppers with “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive.” The 1960s brought one hit after another – “Mama Tried,” “The Legend Of Bonnie and Clyde,” and “Swingin’ Doors,” among them.
In 1970, the singer released what would prove to be his biggest musical hit – “Okie From Muskogee.” The song gave him somewhat of a reputation at social commentary – with his next single being “The Fightin’ Side Of Me,” further stoking the fires of public consciousness. (It’s a little known fact that Haggard actually wanted “Irma Jackson” to be his follow-up to ‘Okie,’ but Capitol balked at the suggestion of a song that spoke of an interracial romance). On a hot streak, the singer won the coveted Entertainer of the Year award from the CMA in 1970, as well.
The singer kept adding to his laurels as the decade went on. “Carolyn,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “It’s All In The Movies” all ascended to the number one position on the Billboard charts. He was pardoned by then-Governor Ronald Reagan of California in 1972 for his previous offenses. He left Capitol for a lucrative contract with MCA in 1977, but the hits continued with “Ramblin’ Fever” and “My Own Kind Of Hat” being among them. His marriage to Owens ended in 1978 – the same year that he married Leona Williams. (Though, Owens stayed as a member of The Strangers, and even served in his wedding to Williams as maid of honor!)
As the 1980s began, the singer recorded what might be one of his best barroom ballads of all time – “Misery and Gin” from the Clint Eastwood film Bronco Billy. Haggard also added such hits as “The Way I Am” and “Big City” to his ever-growing catalog. He switched labels again, moving to Epic in 1981. Among his hits there included “Pancho and Lefty” with Willie Nelson, “My Favorite Memory” and “You Take Me For Granted” – a song that very well could have been Williams’ parting gift to the singer, as the couple divorced in 1983.
As new trends and tastes began to take shape in the late 1980s, Haggard’s hits on Country Radio began to slow down. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star” was his last number one in 1988 – and “Better Love Next Time” marked his last top ten appearance in 1990. However, the singer continued to tour and record. His last solo album was 2011’s Working In Tennessee, and he hit the top of the albums chart just last year with Django & Jimmie, a collaboration with Nelson. He was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, and was celebrated for his art on the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors event.
Haggard also found love again. In 1993, he married his fifth wife, Theresa Ann Lane, who survives him – along with their two children – and four from his previous marriages.
Merle Haggard was the favorite of many Country Music fans, but also the artists as well. George Jones – a frequent duet partner – cited the singer as his favorite, as has Vince Gill and Miranda Lambert. His talent – and his honesty – are traits of which we will never see the likes of again.