1. Merle Haggard
His story, like his music, was as American epic, shot through with improbability, struggle, sin and redemption. Born in California in 1937 in a boxcar his father had converted into a house, he was hopping freights by age ten, and at 14 spent five nights in jail after being caught with a pistol and knife returning from a road trip to Lefty Frizzell's Texas home. He wanted to live the things he'd heard Jimmie Rodgers sing about; he idolized Jesse James and Clyde Barrow (who he sang about); he lived hard, in and out of institutions until he was released from San Quentin in 1960. "Johnny Cash once told me, 'Hag, you're the guy people think I am,'" he told Rolling Stone, adding, "I would've become a lifetime criminal if music hadn't saved my ass."
He began his recording career in 1962, and the electric snap of his Fender Telecaster quickly helped shape the Bakersfield Sound – the taut music that did much to define country for many of the rock bands, from the Beatles to the Eagles, who looked to its stories and twang for inspiration. His songs were about bargains with the self, a search for something better, and the price paid for both: "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," "Branded Man," "Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home" drew from his prison experience, but the black marks they wrestled with signified universally; and barroom anthems like "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and "Swinging Doors" distilled everyday pain into something deeply lyrical.
From 1966 to 1987, he placed 38 hits at Number One on the country charts, among them the bitterly patriotic "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me," though his nomad lifestyle and the pot he smoked gave him more in common with the longhairs those songs denounced than he let on. He called his far-ranging style "country jazz," and the string of late-period albums he began releasing at age 63 in 2000 were among his strongest. "If there's an ambition left in my body,” he told Rolling Stone in 2009, "it's...to write eight lines that will put the condition of the country foremost again before it's too late." He'd done it many times by then, but he kept going. J.L.
Key Tracks: "Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskogee," "Branded Man"