Originally published on the Nash Country Weekly website.
Merle Haggard, one of the legendary figures of country music, died Wednesday (April 6) on his birthday, at age 79 from complications of pneumonia. Merle scored 38 Billboard No. 1 hits, won the Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year honor in 1970 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Merle was born April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield, Calif. He often reflected on his hardscrabble childhood, being raised primarily by his mother following the death of his father when Merle was a boy. He rebelled against his strict and stern mother, running away from home regularly and spending time in reform schools.
Merle Haggard truly knew what the hard-living, “outlaw” lifestyle was all about. He spent time in San Quentin prison in California in the late 1950s for an attempted robbery (Merle was later pardoned for his crime by California Governor Ronald Reagan). If there was ever an unlikely candidate for country music legend, Merle would surely have been the prime example.
But after being released in 1960, Merle turned his life around and changed country music in the process. He was always attracted to music and songwriting, and became inspired to pursue those outlets after seeing Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin in 1958 while still an inmate. During the early 1960s, the Bakersfield Sound championed by Buck Owens was developing in California as a reaction to the pop leanings of the Nashville Sound. Merle was living in the area and found the rootsy, driving Bakersfield Sound to his liking.
After he signed his first record deal with the small Tally label, Merle released his debut single, “Sing a Sad Song,” in 1963. He later signed with Capitol Records, where he saw the bulk of his early success. During that portion of his career, Merle relied on outside songs for a portion of his material. His first No. 1 hit, “The Fugitive,” in 1967 was co-written by the legendary songwriter Liz Anderson.
Soon, Merle was relying on his own experiences, along with his affinity for the working class, to form the basis for his own songs. Merle’s 1969 anthem “Okie From Muskogee” effectively captured the feelings of the middle class and their attitudes toward the anti-war protesters of the era. “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “I Wonder if They Ever Think of Me” and other tunes made statements for the so-called Silent Majority without being condescending. The beauty of Merle’s songs was reflected in their authentic simplicity, using direct language rather than flowery prose. His straight-up style has influenced virtually every songwriter who plies his or her craft today.
He earned the title “Poet of the Common Man” with slice-of-life songs like “Mama Tried,” “If We Make It Through December” and others. His 38 Billboard No.1s place him third on the all-time chart-toppers list behind George Strait and Conway Twitty. Merle was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Merle’s status as a country icon is no better exemplified than in the number of songs that reference him. Just to name a few: “Long Time Gone” by the Dixie Chicks, Collin Raye’s “My Kind of Girl,” “Rock My World (Little Country Girl)” by Brooks & Dunn and “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” by George Jones.
photo by Myriam Santos