Merle Haggart died today on his 79th birthday from complications with pneumonia.
Haggard’s son, Ben Haggard posted on social media his father told him he would die on his birthday. “A week ago dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn’t wrong,” he posted. “A hour ago he took his last breath surrounded by family and friends. He loved everything about life and he loved that everyone of you gave him a chance with his music. He wasn’t just a country singer.. He was the best country singer that ever lived.”
THE WRITER’S ALMANAC – APRIL 6, 2016
It’s the birthday and the death day of American country and western singer Merle Haggard (1937), born in California, where he grew up in a remodeled boxcar. By the time he was nine, he was fatherless. By 12, he was teaching himself how to play the guitar by listening to Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams records, but he was also writing bad checks and stealing. He ran away to Texas at 14, hopping freight cars to get there. In between jail time, he worked as hay pitcher and potato truck driver.
By the time he was 20, he was in San Quentin prison. It was a visit from country singer Johnny Cash, who later became his good friend, that inspired him to start playing music seriously. He said: “I was just on the wrong direction and someone, something, turned me around. God hit me on the upside of the head.” At San Quentin, he earned his high school equivalency and joined the prison’s country band. He was released in 1960 and began playing bars for $5.00 and free beer.
It wasn’t until he recorded “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” in 1966 that he earned his first No. 1 hit. Johnny Cash encouraged him to write about his criminal past, so Haggard wrote about the dark life of prisoners and ex-cons, even though his past scared him. He said: “I’m afraid someday I’m gonna be out there and there’s gonna be some convict that was in there the same time I was in and they’re gonna be third row down and say, ‘What do you think you’re doing, 45200?'”
His most famous song, “Okie from Muskogee,” was originally intended to be humorous, but took on a life of its own when it was released in 1969. People, especially conservatives, were tired of hippies protesting the Vietnam War. The song, with snappy lyrics like “And I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee / A place where even squares can have a ball,” earned Haggard standing ovations and became an anthem, even for hippies. It’s been covered by The Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys, and the punk band The Melvins. Haggard was even invited by President Richard Nixon to perform the song at the White House.
Haggard has had 40 No. 1 hits and won numerous Grammys. His latest album is Django & Jimmie (2015), a collaboration with Willie Nelson.