Country Legend Merle Haggard Dies At 79
Merle Haggard, a country legend who helped pioneer the "Bakersfield Sound," has died on his birthday at the age of 79.
Haggard died at his home outside of Redding surrounded by family just after 9 a.m. this morning, local ABC affiliate KERO reported. He lived in Palo Cedro, the Associated Press reported. The country music star had been suffering from double pneumonia, forcing him to cancel an upcoming tour with Willie Nelson.
His son posted a tribute to his father on Facebook:
The singer was born on this day in 1937 in Oildale, a working class town just outside Bakersfield that was home for many of the Okies, Arkies and Texans who came west during the Depression. Haggard was the son of a railroad carpenter who died when he was 9, according to The Bakersfield Californian. His difficult youth—colored by petty crime, restlessness, and freight-hopping—ultimately helped shape his songbook:
He committed a string of petty crimes and jailhouse escapes that eventually landed him in San Joaquin Prison for almost two weeks. That experience — along with a harrowing Huck Finn-meets-Harry Houdini youth, hopping freight trains, singing for beer, stealing cars, surviving automobile wrecks, botching burglaries, escaping from jails and, finally, serving time in one of California’s most notorious state prisons — was more than ample fodder for the story lines that would comprise his prolific body of work.
He came back home in 1960 where his career began to take off in the burgeoning music scene in Kern County where so many Okies had settled. That scene gave birth to other stars like Buck Owens, Red Simpson (who died in January), Billy Mize and Tommy Collins. They pioneered the Bakersfield Sound that emerged in response to the slick sounds of Nashville. He and his band had 38 no. 1's on the Billboard country charts in the 1960s and 1970s, The Bakersfield California reports.
Haggard is probably best known for 1969's "Okie From Muskogee," a song that took aim at draft card-burning, shaggy-haired, LSD-dropping hippies in San Francisco. It became a sort of anthem for conservatives. Later, he told The Boot he wrote it to support soldiers, "When I was in prison, I knew what it was like to have freedom taken away. Freedom is everything. During Vietnam, there were all kinds of protests. Here were these [servicemen] going over there and dying for a cause — we don't even know what it was really all about. And here are these young kids, that were free, bitching about it. There's something wrong with that and with [disparaging] those poor guys."
The Bakersfield Californian notes that Haggard moved to Lake Shasta in the 1980s, but he started hanging around Bakersfield more after he had a street named after him: Merle Haggard Drive.
The country star was married five times: to Leona Hobbs in 1956, Bonnie Owens (Buck Owens' ex-wife) in 1965, Leona Williams in 1978, to Debbie Parret in 1985 and to Theresa Ann Lane in 1993.
Here are a few of his hits: