He was one of the most influential country music stars of the twentieth century, and he will be remembered for the life he lived almost as much as the music he made. Merle Ronald Haggard was born in Oildale, California in 1937. He died in Palo Cedro, California on his birthday, at the age of 79.
During his life, he would pioneer a style of music that would come to be known as the Bakersfield Sound. His image, personal life, and music style would come to be known as Outlaw Country, a genre that also includes Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. Along with Cash, Jennings, and Hank Williams, Merle Haggard is regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of country music. He also won numerous awards, collaborated with a wide array of other musicians, and left a lasting mark on country and popular music. His net worth at the time of his death is said to be around $40 million dollars.
Merle Haggard’s childhood and teenage years were full of hard times and misfortune. Before he was born, his parents’ barn burned down so his family moved from Oklahoma to California. He grew up in a converted boxcar with his family, and his dad died of a brain haemorrhage when Haggard was eight years old. The premature death of his father would have a huge impact on his formative years and, by extension, his musical career. He received his first acoustic guitar when he was twelve years old as a gift from a family member, and he taught himself how to play at home by listening to old records.
Merle Haggard was rebellious from a young age, getting sent to a juvenile detention camp before he turned 13 . He would steal things, beat people up, and write bad cheques, and he was sent to a juvenile centre for a second time in 1950, when he was thirteen. Following this, he ran away from home for a year, and when he came home, he was fully committed to both crime and music. He began playing shows in bars, and was well received enough for him to decide to pursue music as a career. At this same time, he was continuously in trouble with the law. He was constantly stealing, assaulting people, and escaping from captivity.
In 1957, he tried to hold up a roadhouse because he was married and in difficult financial circumstances. He was arrested and sent to jail and then after he tried to escape from the jail he was sent to San Quentin Prision. He continued to get in trouble while in San Quentin. Also while in San Quentin, he found out that his wife had become pregnant from another man, which upset him greatly. He ran a gambling and alcohol ring in prison, and was punished for drinking alcohol. Eventually he got onto the right track in prison, staying out of trouble, getting a high school diploma, and playing in a prison band. He was released from prison in 1960, and would have his crimes pardoned by Ronald Reagan in 1972.
Early Musical Career
The musical style of Merle Haggard can be defined by a grittier sound than what other country musicians were doing at the time. He is also responsible in part for popularizing the twangy sounds of Fender Telecaster guitars in country music. He had his first hit in 1965 with “Strangers,” which gave his career legs. His first number one song came in 1966 with “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive.” At the time of the song’s release, it wasn’t common knowledge that the themes in the song were based on his own life and that he had spent time in prison.
Merle Haggard would go on to have a stretch of hits in the late ’60s and early ’70s, cementing him as one of the biggest music stars in the United States. Beginning in the late ’60s, his songs took a political turn, criticizing the events surrounding the Vietnam War. This is where he would make his true mark, as these songs resonated with fans so strongly that they would weep at his concerts and give him long ovations. Also at this time, he achieved crossover success. His songs started landing on the pop charts, and his songs were covered by huge acts like Dean Martin and The Everly brothers.
During this time, Haggard’s image and music were decidedly right-wing. He criticized the hippie movement and protestors of the Vietnam War. He decried the use of marijuana. He would move away from this right-wing image in his later career.
Later Musical Career
The 1970s marked a run of success after success for Merle Haggard. He had twenty-four number one country singles. He wrote nationalistic anthems that were aimed at and well-received by America’s working class. He released more and more hits through the ’80s, and then had a quiet decade during the ’90s.
In the 2000s, he made a kind of comeback, releasing more albums. He wrote songs for movies, including the Joel and Ethan Cohen’s film Fargo. He collaborated with various contemporary country artists, and held nationwide tours.
Unsurprising considering his chaotic life, Merle Haggard had many marriages. He was married five times, the first one in 1964 and the last one in 1993. He had seven kids in his various marriages. The most impactful marriage in terms of his career was his marriage to fellow successful country singer Bonnie Owens. The two of them wrote songs together, and she cared for his kids from pervious marriages. They remained close after their divorce in 1978, as she would continue to sing backup vocals for his band for most of his career.
Though he was a vocal opponent of marijuana in his early career, he began smoking it in his 40s. He also was a cocaine user for periods of his life. He had a surgery for blocked arteries in the ’90s which he recovered from. He was also successful in a fight against cancer in 2008. He would continue to tour and record music after his troubles with cancer.
In December of last year, he was sent to the hospital because of complications related to pneumonia. He cancelled some shows because of the illness, but seemed to recover. Last month, he was again hospitalized for pneumonia, and he died from complications related to the pneumonia at his home earlier today, surrounded by family.
Over his career, he collected substantial awards in owing both to his musical accomplishments and his accomplishments in record sales. He has won many Grammy Awards and Academy of Country Music Awards. His style of playing is still emulated in new country music releases, and it seems inevitable that his songs will continue to be played and covered for years to come.
In a statement earlier today, Merle Haggard’s son said that his father predicted that he would pass away on his birthday and that he knew he would be correct. He also referred to his father as the greatest country music singer who ever lived. A huge number of country musicians and other media personalities have taken to social media to pay their respects.