Country legend Merle Haggard has died, reportedly from complications of pneumonia. He had just turned 79 today.
Over the course of his almost 60-year-career, Haggard earned the nickname “The Poet Of The Common Man” and scored 38 No. 1 Billboard hits, including tracks like “The Fugitive,” “Okie From Muskogee,” and “Mama Tried.” (33 other Haggard cuts also reached the top 10.) tracks. Only George Strait and Conway Twitty have landed more chart-topping country singles.
Covered by everyone from the Everly Brothers to Miranda Lambert, Haggard was a favorite of many singers, no matter the genre. One of Haggard’s most popular songs, “Today I Started Loving You Again,” has been recorded by more than 400 performers. Haggard was also instrumental in popularizing the outlaw country movement of the ’70s alongside acts like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
An unlikely icon, Haggard was born in Bakersfield, California in 1937 and battled with his strict mother throughout his childhood, frequently running away from home and landing in reform schools.
In 1957, Haggard was arrested after he tried to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse and, following an attempted escape from Bakersfield Jail, was sent to San Quentin Prison. While in San Quentin, he met and befriended a prisoner named “Rabbit,” and together the two planned to escape. The plan went sideways after Haggard was sent to solitary confinement for drinking, though “Rabbit” managed to both escape and shoot a police officer, leading to his eventual execution. That incident, along with a prisoner Haggard met in solitary, shook the singer enough that he decided to turn his life around and earned a GED while in jail. After Haggard saw Johnny Cash, who’d later become a friend, play San Quentin in 1958, he joined the prison’s country music band before being released in 1960. (In 1972, California’s then-governor Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon.)
After his release, Haggard picked up a series of odd jobs while continuing to work on his music. The first track he ever recorded, “Skid Row,” was released on Tally Records in 1962, and was a down-home reaction to the era’s over-slick “Nashville Sound.” His first national hit came in 1964, when he recorded Wynn Stewart’s “Sing A Sad Song,” and by 1966 he had his first No. 1 with “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” written by Liz Anderson (mother of fellow country singer Lynn Anderson).
Haggard’s 1966 record, Branded Man, marked the beginning of an incredibly fruitful period for the singer, with subsequent records like Sing Me Back Home and The Legend Of Bonnie And Clyde earning both critical and fan acclaim. Songs like “Mama Tried,” “The Legend Of Bonnie And Clyde,” “Hungry Eyes,” and “Sing Me Back Home” all topped the charts, as did 1969’s anti-protestor cut “Okie From Muskogee,” the track that marked Haggard’s breakthrough with more mainstream audiences.
Haggard’s next hit, 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side Of Me,” was even more unapologetically right-wing, with lines about, while he’s fine with the counterculture “switchin’ sides and standin’ up for what they believe in,” he firmly believes that, “if you don’t love it, leave it.” As the singer told Rolling Stone in 1970, “I don’t like [hippies’] views on life, their filth, their visible self-disrespect, y’know. They don’t give a shit what they look like or what they smell like…What do they have to offer humanity?” Haggard was so popular with conservatives at this time that embattled Alabama governor George Wallace even asked for the singer’s endorsement in his run at re-election. Haggard, to his credit, declined.
In the fall of 1972, Haggard’s first TV special, Let Me Tell You About A Song, aired, and in 1974, Haggard appeared on the cover of Time magazine. He continued to top the charts with hits like “Someday We’ll Look Back,” “Grandma Harp,” and “If We Make It Through December,” his last pop hit.
In the ’80s, Haggard published an autobiography, Sing Me Back Home, and released one of his most critically acclaimed records, Big City. (A second autobiography, My House Of Memories, would be published in 1999.) He landed nine No. 1 country singles between 1981 and 1985, including “My Favorite Memory” and “Natural High,” and recorded chart-topping duets with both George Jones and Willie Nelson.
After divorcing his third wife, Leona Williams, in 1983, Haggard went through about a decade of hard drinking and drug issues, a period he’s since attributed to “male menopause.” As he struggled with cocaine addiction in the early ’90s, Haggard was eclipsed by newer, shinier country stars, including acts like the aforementioned Strait.
In 2000, Haggard’s career experienced a resurgence after he signed with Anti- records and released If I Could Only Fly, a record beloved by critics and fans alike. He followed with Roots, Vol. 1, a tribute to Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Hank Thompson, and released his last solo record, Working In Tennessee in 2011. His last official release, Django And Jimmie, was a collaboration with Willie Nelson and featured the single “It’s All Going To Pot,” which was promoted by a video that showed the pair getting high together in the studio.
A bit of a road dog, Haggard toured tirelessly right up until the end of his life, though in recent years some concerts had been either postponed or canceled due to the singer’s health troubles.
Over the course of his career, Haggard won 19 awards from the Academy Of Country Music and six from the Country Music Association, including Entertainer Of The Year in 1970. He also earned three Grammys and was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1994. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts in 2010, and was honored at a gala with musical performances from Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Kid Rock, and Miranda Lambert.