Merle Haggard, who over six decades composed and performed one of the greatest repertoires in country music, capturing the American condition with his stories of the poor, the lost, the working class, heartbroken and hard-living, died at his home in the San Joaquin Valley, California, after a battle with pneumonia, his spokeswoman Tresa Redburn confirmed. He was 79.
In American and country music, few artists loomed larger. Haggard’s career spanned 38 Number One country hits, and his rough hard-edged style influenced country and rock & roll artists from Waylon Jennings and Gram Parsons to Jamey Johnson and Eric Church. As a songwriter, Willie Nelson called him “one of the best.”
“Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets,” Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2009. “Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the Fifties, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock & roll star, one of the best.”
Haggard didn’t have to look far for material. His greatest songs – the Depression-era poverty described in “Hungry Eyes,” the prison diaries “Sing Me Back Home” and “Mama Tried,” the hard-living anthems like “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Back to the Barrooms” – were all taken from the pages of his own life. He was born April 6th, 1937 near Bakersfield, California, two years after his family moved west from Oklahoma during the great dust bowl migration. Haggard’s father found work on the railroad, playing fiddle in roadhouse bands on the side, and bought the family a $500 boxcar house. When Haggard was nine, he lost his father to a stroke, setting him on a path of what he called “illegal motion.” A year later, he hopped his first train with a friend, riding for 18 hours until getting caught. “I tried to explain [to my mother] that anybody could ride with a pass; it took a man to ride the way we had,” he said.
At 11, Haggard’s mother turned him into authorities for being “incorrigible.” He spent his teens in an out of reform schools. By his own estimate, Haggard was locked up more than a dozen times, on charges including robbery, truancy, petty larceny, shoplifting, check forgery and car theft.