Merle Haggard passed away on his 79th birthday (April 6, 2016) after suffering from a spate of health issues, including double pneumonia, for which he was recently hospitalized.
Flossie and James Francis Haggard moved from Checotah, Oklahoma to Bakersfield, California in the midst of the Great Depression in 1934. Three years later, their son Merle was born, and joined siblings Lowell and Lillian in the Haggard family.
When Merle was nine, his father died of a brain hemorrhage and the singer never truly recovered from the loss. Forced to work long hours in order pay bills and feed her children, Flossie was rarely home, leaving Merle plenty of opportunities to get into trouble — which he did regularly.
Along with singer, friend, and co-conspirator Bob Teague, the two were in and out of juvenile detention for a number of petty crimes. Every time Haggard went back in, it was for charges that were more serious than previous infractions. After being released in the early ’50s, he and Teague went to a Lefty Frizzell concert, and sang for the honky-tonk legend backstage. Frizzell got the two to open for him, which eventually led Haggard to take up music professionally. In 1956, he appeared on the local television show, Chuck Wagon.
But two short years later, Haggard was arrested once again, and after to trying to escape, was sent to Folsom Prison. When two of his jailhouse friends ended up on death row, the singer changed, and even got his high school diploma while he was incarcerated. In 1958, after Johnny Cash‘s legendary visit, Haggard joined the prison band.
Upon his release, Haggard worked for his brother by day, and sang every opportunity he got at night. He was signed to Tally records, and in the midst of the Nashville Sound, released the twanging Bakersfield Sound gem, “Skid Row” in 1962. Three years later, he had his first Top 10 hit with “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” which was written by Liz Anderson. His association with Anderson would be a beneficial one, as he scored his first No. 1 with Anderson’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”
1967’s Branded Man, ’68’s Sing Me Back Home and The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde, gained Merle unprecedented success. Haggard’s writing took on a more personal/autobiographical tone, and his fans responded: During this time, the Bakersfield firebrand racked up 37 Top 10 hits, including 23 No. 1 singles. In 1969 he delivered “Okie From Muskogee,” which remains one of his best known songs and has been covered by a host of artists, including the Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys and The Melvins.
Haggard’s success garnered him inroads to the pop world, with artists as diverse as Dean Martin and Gram Parsons recording some of Merle’s songs, bringing them to new audiences. Despite hopping from Capitol to MCA to Epic Record, Haggard continue to have country hits throughout the ’70s and ’80s.
Throughout the ’90s, Haggard made headlines with a series of health issues, including an angioplasty in 1995, and in 2008 the singer had part of his lung removed after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite this, Haggard was in fine form when he recorded Django and Willie with longtime pal, Willie Nelson.
Always true to his artistic vision, Haggard worked outside of the lines when it came to Nashville’s slickly produced music. Initially, Haggard Buck Owens are known for pioneering the Bakersfield Sound and Haggard later was a key member of the Outlaw movement. Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. The singer is survived by fifth wife Theresa Ann Lane and his six children.