Merle Haggard dies at 79; legendary outlaw of country music, Bakersfield-style
Merle Haggard tips his hat to the crowd as he performs at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in Indio on April 24, 2015.(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard sits on his bus with Fanny Mae before performing at the Stagecoach Music Festival in 2010.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard performs at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills on Feb. 11, 2016.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Kris Kristofferson encourages the band as he performs with Merle Haggard, left, at the Saban Theatre this year.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard accepts the ACM Crystal Milestone Award during the Academy of Country Music Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on April 6, 2014.(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)
Merle Haggard poses with wife Theresa and son Ben at the 2014 Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2014.(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard performs with Blake Shelton, right, at the 2014 Grammys.(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard poses at his ranch at Palo Cedro, Calif., on Oct. 2, 2007.(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Merle Haggard smiles during a May 28, 2003, news conference at the National Museum of American History in Washington, where he and his sister Lillian Haggard Hoge donated belongings taken on their family’s Dust Bowl-era move from Oklahoma to California.(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)
Merle Haggard on his property in Palo Cedro in January 2009.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
The country singer during a photo shoot at the Muddy Moose Bar at the Sportsmen’s Lodge Event Center in 2004.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard with a map at a 1985 news conference for the U.S.A. for America tour.(Patrick Downs / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard, left, and Willie Nelson attend the BMI awards dinner in Nashville in October 1981.(Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard in concert at Anaheim Stadium in 1980.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard, right, and then Times writer Robert Hilburn at Anaheim Stadium in October 1980.(George Rose / Los Angeles Times)
Merle Haggard plays the Anaheim Convention Center on March 20, 1975.(Los Angeles Times )
Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Glen Campbell perform on a TV show in the mid-1970s.(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)
Merle Haggard performs with Johnny Cash on “The Johnny Cash Show” on Aug. 2, 1969.(ABC Photo Archives / Getty Images)
The country singer in an image from 1968.(Los Angeles Times)
Through it all, the songs still flowed.
Over decades of trouble, fame, and more trouble, Merle Haggard never stopped making up songs. The country-music star seemed afflicted with a song-writing compulsion, much as Woody Guthrie was.
He penned his first ballads as a child. By later life, he claimed to have written 10,000 of them.
He composed wherever he went, all day long. He was inspired by snippets of conversation, flashes of memory. He drew lyrics from a flower, from the view out a bus window.
Even after Haggard’s fame dimmed, and audiences shrank, he kept writing, kept singing. He said “the best songs feel like they’ve always been here.” He seemed to never tire of unearthing them.
The musician, who sang of his law-breaking Bakersfield youth and whose natural, storytelling lyrics won him a vast following — more than 100 of his songs made the Billboard charts — died Wednesday — his birthday — at his home near Redding. He was 79.
Haggard’s spokeswoman Tresa Redburn said no cause of death had been determined.
Haggard had been in and out of the hospital in recent months battling pneumonia. His son Ben Haggard, a guitarist in his father’s band, said in a statement that Haggard had died surrounded by family and friends. A week ago, he “had told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn’t wrong,” the statement said.
A Central Valley native and former San Quentin inmate, Haggard was considered one of the leading artists of Bakersfield’s honky-tonk scene and his stature in the country-music pantheon ranks with that of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
His biggest years stretched from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, during which he once had nine consecutive country No. 1 singles. But Haggard’s inborn, relentless creativity never flagged.
But patriotic pride and political songs made up only a portion of the vast and diverse Haggard portfolio, which included autobiographical laments, odes to working men and women, drinking songs and love songs. A Times critic described his ballads as “caked with the dust of hard-won experiences.”
In life Haggard was by no means the clean-cut square of the Muskogee song, about which he expressed mixed feelings (though after a hiatus, he eventually resumed singing it).
He had grown up a troublemaker — a teenage runaway who rode the rails and turned petty criminal. Sent to prison after a botched burglary attempt, he was among the inmates who watched Cash perform at San Quentin in 1958.
The experience famously helped turn his life around. But it didn’t exactly straighten him out. Drugs, divorce and bankruptcy dogged his path, long after success came his way.
He was private, cryptic, and, long after his train-hopping days, he was a fanatic for model trains. Neither his songs nor views were predictable. He wrote, for example, “Irma Jackson,” an anti-racist protest song about a love affair between a white man and black woman, the same year he wrote “Okie from Muskogee.” (Capitol Records delayed the release of “Irma Jackson.”)
“There’s the south San Joaquin where the seeds of the Dust Bowl are found / And there’s a place called Mt. Whitney from where the mighty Kern River comes down” is a typical Haggard lyric, “so simple it is hard to see the craft involved,” Times critic Robert Hilburn wrote.
Simplicity was his creed, Haggard told Hilburn in a 2003 interview. “You’ve got to remember songs are meant to be sung,” he said. “You are not writing poetry.”
Haggard’s scores of plain, rough-livin’ character songs made him a critics’ choice for one of the leading songwriters of his generation; Hilburn once claimed only Willie Nelson rivaled him among living songwriters in the country tradition.
But Haggard was also famous for his rich baritone singing voice. The voice dipped, broke and warbled with despair. It gave vocal form to the electric Fender-guitar twanginess of what came to be known as the “Bakersfield Sound” — that made-in-California genre calculated to cut through the noisy din of Bakersfield bars.
Haggard took singing very seriously. He spoke as a man seeking to master difficult maneuvers. He recounted efforts to hone his voice to approach the authenticity and restless inflection of his idol, country singer Lefty Frizzell.
Eventually, his style would prove so influential that the Haggard sound became a standard country sound. Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Mark Chesnutt and Clint Black are just a few of the artists whose style recalls Haggard’s.
Despite this, Haggard in late middle age struggled as new waves of country-pop passed him by.
He lamented the absence of seriousness in this music, and condemned what he saw as the “bubble-gum side.”
To him, country music remained what it had ever been: “An art form,” he called it.
Merle Haggard performances
Merle Haggard performs 'Okie From Muskogee'
Merle Haggard performs 'The Bottle Let Me Down'
Merle Haggard performs 'Mama Tried'
Merle Haggard performing 'That's The Way Life Goes'
Merle Haggard performing 'Today I Started Loving You Again'
Merle Haggard performing 'New San Antionio Rose'
Merle Ronald Haggard was born April 6, 1937, in Oildale, near Bakersfield, the youngest of three children of James Frances and Flossie Mae Haggard. His parents were Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma who set up house in a converted boxcar. But Haggard fared better than many fellow migrants because his father had regular work with the railroads.
Haggard described his mother as socially ambitious. His early life contains a telling hint of middle-class aspiration: He took violin lessons as a child. Later, he would play an able fiddle.
Otherwise, young Haggard claimed that he was not encouraged in music. He had always composed, he said. He described his childhood self staring out of classroom windows, making up songs. Haggard recalled an uncle telling his mother, “if you want that boy to amount to anything, you better take that guitar out of his hands.”
After his father died suddenly when he was 9, Haggard ran away. He jumped on freight cars, and spent time in a home for delinquent boys. By 13, he was singing in bars. By 17, he had married a waitress, Leona Hobbs. But he was in jail for auto theft at the birth of their child, the first of four.
Then Haggard broke into a bar, wound up in jail and tried to escape, and in 1958 was sentenced to six to 15 years in San Quentin, where Cash’s performance prompted him to form a prison band.
This real-life narrative would become a classic trope of country music. “Mama Tried,” considered by some critics to be Haggard’s greatest song, is a fairly straight autobiographical account of his road to San Quentin.
Its indelible chorus — “I turned 21 in prison doin’ life without parole” — exaggerates his sentence; paroled after less than three years, Haggard was able to unfurl his musical gifts under state supervision.
He worked briefly as a ditch digger and pursued gigs in Bakersfield bars, where a new country-rockabilly music scene was gaining popularity. Its high priest was Haggard’s predecessor and early collaborator Buck Owens, whose ex-wife, singer Bonnie Owens, Haggard would marry after divorcing Leona.
Haggard was an ardent fan of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. He had talent. He had hawkeyed good looks. But he also had, like them, a strong sense of craft. Over the next few years, he would produce a startling string of hits — 13 Billboard country Top 10 singles by the end of the decade.
These songs established his stardom. Several became virtual country standards. “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried,” “Okie from Muskogee,” and “Workin’ Man Blues” were all produced from 1966 to 1969.
“Okie’s” overt right-wing political message, delivered at the height of Vietnam War protests — and “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” a subsequent, even angrier swipe at the anti-war movement — made Haggard a darling of conservatives. Richard Nixon sent him a congratulatory letter; then California Gov. Ronald Reagan pardoned him and segregationist George Wallace sought his endorsement for president.
Though sincere in his conservative views, Haggard was uncomfortable with his political role. He referred to himself as “dumb as a rock” for writing “Okie,” though he defended the emotions behind it.
Much later, he would lament the Vietnam-era’s stark political divide, and the legacy of bitterness he said it left.
By the ‘70s, the Bakersfield Sound had tilted the country music industry west, away from Nashville. Times writer Peter H. King summed up the phenomenon with three nouns: “Buck and Merle and Bakersfield.”
Haggard produced hits steadily over the next two decades; 38 of his songs would be Billboard country No. 1 singles. Reiterating the underdog themes of his early music in the 1970s, he produced the recession ballad “If We Make It Through December” in 1973. He joined forces with Nelson to sing “Pancho and Lefty” in 1983, and won a Grammy in 1984 for “That’s the Way Love Goes.” He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
For the Record
11:24 a.m.: An earlier version of this story incorrectly titled one of Merle Haggard’s ballads. It is “If We Make It Through December,” not “If I Make It Through December.”
He expressed gratitude for the favorable turn of his life after prison. But his living of it remained jagged. The marriage with Bonnie Owens didn’t last, and neither did two subsequent marriages. Haggard drank — and wrote songs about it. The 1980 hit, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” was one of them. He made tens of millions of dollars, and lost them. He had trouble with the IRS, and declared bankruptcy in 1993, the same year he married his fifth wife, Theresa Lane.
He stuck to a grueling touring schedule. He was driven perhaps by money woes but also by demons. By his own admission, he had trouble settling down. His friends worried about him.
He aged and country music changed. The hits ebbed. But the songs still flowed. Haggard had two more children with Lane, who lived with him at a 168-acre ranch outside Redding in the Lake Shasta area.
In 2000, he released the album “If I Could Only Fly” to critical praise.
In 2002, he published the second of two autobiographies, and released a stinging song about the Iraq war during President George W. Bush’s term. This song was a contrast to the Main Street-pride spirit of “Okie.”
Haggard said he did not vote for President Obama, but he spoke glowingly of his election — and, of course, wrote a song about it. He also defended Obama against conservative attacks and called the president’s right-wing critics “almost criminal.”
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Phife Dawg, right, formed the trailblazing hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest in the late 1980s in New York with his childhood friend Q-Tip, left. He was 45. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
The former first lady’s devotion to her husband made her a formidable behind-the-scenes player in his administrations and one of the most influential presidential wives in modern times. She was 94. Full obituary(American Vantage Media )
Martin, second from right, with Paul McCartney, left, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon in 1963, produced nearly all the Beatles’ recordings, advising them on songwriting and arranging and capturing the vitality of their early performances in the studio. He was 90. Full obituary(Michael Ochs Archives )
The longtime Los Angeles radio disc jockey, whose real name was Art Ferguson, hosted the morning radio show for popular and influential station KHJ-AM in the late 1960s and went on to be a key player in the launch of latter-day powerhouses KROQ-AM and KIIS-FM. He was 71. Full obituary(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
The veteran actor built his early career playing heavies and won an Academy Award in 1968 for his supporting role as the tough Southern prison-camp convict who grew to hero-worship Paul Newman’s defiant title character in “Cool Hand Luke.” He was 91. Full obituary(Warner Bros. / Getty Images)
A prolific entrepreneur, Mann over the course of seven decades founded 17 companies in fields ranging from aerospace to pharmaceuticals to medical devices. He was 90. Full obituary(Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)
The Egyptian diplomat helped negotiate his country’s landmark peace deal with Israel but then clashed with the United States when he served a single term as U.N. secretary-general. He was 93. Full obituary(Marty Lederhandler / Associated Press)
The novelist’s 1960 masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird” brought her a Pulitzer Prize and a venerated place in American literature. She was 89. Full obituary(Donald Uhrbrock / PBS)
Supreme Court Justice Scalia was a fiery conservative who used a sharp intellect, barbed wit and a zeal for verbal combat to fight against the tide of modern liberalism. He was 79. Full obituary(Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)
Pro-BMX biker Dave Mirra was one of the most decorated athletes in X Games history. He held the record for the most medals in history with 24. He was 41. Full obituary(Ed Reinke / Associated Press)
Maurice White, co-founder and leader of the groundbreaking ensemble Earth, Wind & Fire, was the source for a wealth of euphoric hits in the 1970s and early ‘80s, including ‘Shining Star,’ ‘September,’ and ‘Boogie Wonderland.’ He was 74. Full obituary(Kathy Willens / Associated Press)
Once a finalist for California poet laureate, Alarcón was known for his bilingual poetry about immigrants, love and the indigenous languages and traditions of Mexico, and also for bilingual books of children’s verse. He was 61. Full obituary(Nancy Aidé Gonzalez )
A founding member of the Eagles, Frey was credited with being the chief architect of the vocal and instrumental blend that defined the group. The group’s hits included “Best of My Love” and “Hotel California.” He was 67. Full obituary
(Gijsbert Hanekroot / Redferns)
In a career that encompassed everything from big-budget Hollywood movies to classical theater, Rickman made bad behavior fascinating to watch from “Die Hard” to the “Harry Potter” movies. He was 69. Full obituary
The barrier-breaking British rock musician and actor produced an astonishing range of work, from cosmic folk (“Space Oddity”) and glam rock (“Ziggy Stardust”) to blue-eyed soul (“Young Americans”) and electronic experiments with Brian Eno (“Heroes”). He was 69. Full obituary
The composer and former principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic was known for pushing music lovers and the music establishment to let go of the past and embrace new sounds, structures and textures. He was 90. Full obituary(Christophe Ena / Associated Press)
The Academy Award winner was revered as one of the most influential cinematographers in film history for his work on classics including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Deer Hunter.” He was 85. Full obituary(Tamas Kovacs / EPA)
Gordon helped revolutionize surfing with the creation of the foam surfboard. His polyurethane boards were lighter and easier to ride, making surfing accessible -- which helped popularize the sport globally. He was in his 70s. Full obituary(Charlie Neuman / San Diego Union-Tribune/ZUMA Press)
The attorney and almond farmer was known for his battle to stop the $68-billion California bullet train project from slicing up his almond orchards -- part of a deeply emotional land war that has drawn in hundreds of farming families from Merced to Bakersfield. He was 92. Full obituary
Resisting the legacy of her famous father, crooner Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole was a singer in her own right. Known for her jazz and gospel-inflected voice, she sold more than 30 million albums and earned nine Grammy Awards over her four-decade career. She was 65. Full obituary(Los Angeles Times)
He was, by then, “one of the last damn cowboys left,” a San Francisco Chronicle critic declared. In 2008, Haggard had part of a lung removed, and soon resumed touring.
He had once called his life “a 35-year bus ride.” But the train-hopping Bakersfield desperado had underestimated.
Six decades after his prison days, he was still traveling and performing every few days.
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