Country Legend Merle Haggard Dies At 79

Apr 6, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 2:11 pm

Merle Haggard was known by his fans as "Hag." With songs that reflected the working-class values and experiences of his own early life, Haggard found an audience in folks that saw the same. The country musician died Wednesday morning in California. It was his 79th birthday.

Haggard's music was drawn from a life that started in 1937 in a converted train boxcar, the family home in Bakersfield, Calif. Haggard's mother and father were part of the mass migration of people from Oklahoma who went to California looking for a better life during the Great Depression. But his father died when Haggard was just 9 years old. In a 1995 interview with Fresh Air, he described how that led to an early life of troublemaking.

"I was, to say the least, probably the most incorrigible child you can think of," Haggard said. "I was on my way to prison before I realized it. But I really don't know why — I think it was out of boredom and the lack of a father's attention, I think."

A robbery landed him in San Quentin prison shortly after he turned 20, and he spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement.

"I wound up with nothing to lay on except a Bible and concrete slab," Haggard said. "I don't know — it was something about the whole situation that I knew that if I was lucky enough to get out I would be all finished."

Once he was paroled, Haggard turned to songwriting. His mother had shown him a few basic guitar chords and he taught himself the rest, falling under the spell of songwriters like Jimmie Reed, Bob Wills and Hank Williams.

His hardscrabble beginnings, a fierce independence and his time behind bars all came pouring out in "Sing Me Back Home," a 1967 song based on his time in solitary confinement where he could hear the voice of a man condemned to die.

"When Haggard sings, it's not as if he's performing. When he sings, it's as if he's confiding," author Tom Carter, who spent two years with the singer while they worked on the 2002 biography Merle Haggard's My House of Memories: For The Record, said in an interview recorded before the singer died. Carter says the singer was driven by telling stories set to music.

"He never stops polishing his craft because he loves his craft," Carter said.

That craft became part of what was called "The Bakersfield Sound." During a time when Nashville was all about polished vocals over lush orchestrated arrangements, Bakersfield musician Buck Owens led a subgenre of country music fueled by a raw honky-tonk energy with a little bit of Western swing and performed on electric rock 'n' roll instruments. Haggard's string of chart successes became part of the sound named after his home town.

Starting in 1966, Haggard scored 37 top 10 country hits in a row, 23 of them reaching No. 1. But his success didn't guarantee an easy life: His marriages failed and he was largely an absentee father mostly because of the countless miles crisscrossing the country on a bus playing honky-tonks and county fairs. The lifestyle and the drinking would haunt him in his later years.

He was labeled an intolerant reactionary for his 1969 song "Okie From Muskogee," in which he dresses down the counterculture, something he said was actually satire.

At the end of his life, Haggard continually found warm receptions from his fans on the road; his later albums expanded his audience beyond hard-core country music fans and fellow musicians, often taking on a philosophical tone.

Haggard wrote the foreword to his biography, an early summation of the ingredients of his life and his music. He read it himself for the audio book version:

"I've lived through 17 stays in penal institutions. Incarceration in a penitentiary. Five marriages, bankruptcy, a broken back, brawls, shooting incidents, swindlings, sickness, the death of loved ones and more. I've heard tens of thousands chant my name when I couldn't hear the voice of my own soul. I wondered if God was listening and I was sure no one else was."

With Haggard's death, perhaps he will finally learn that God was indeed listening and was actually a fan.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Country music legend Merle Haggard died today on his 79th birthday after battling pneumonia. His humble beginnings and a stint in prison as a young man give him no shortage of material for songs. His music was rooted in life's hardships and disappointments. By the end of his long and successful career, he had attracted a broad base of fans. NPR's Felix Contreras has this appreciation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MERLE HAGGARD SONG, "MAMA TRIED")

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Merle Haggard was known by his fans as Hag.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA TRIED")

MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) The first thing I remember knowing was a lonesome whistle blowing and a youngin's (ph) dream of growing up to ride.

CONTRERAS: His music was drawn from a life that started in 1937 in a converted train boxcar, the family home in Bakersfield, Calif. His mother and father were part of a mass migration of people from Oklahoma who went to California looking for a better life during the Great Depression. But his father died when Haggard was just 9 years old. And in a 1995 interview with WHYY's FRESH AIR, He described how that led to an early life of troublemaking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HAGGARD: I was, to say the least, probably the most incorrigible child you could think of. I was already on the way to prison before I realized it, actually. I was really a - kind of a screw up. I really don't know why. I think it was mostly just out of boredom and a lack of a father's attention, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA TRIED")

HAGGARD: (Singing) Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied. That leaves only me to blame because Mama tried.

CONTRERAS: A robbery landed him in San Quentin prison shortly after he turned 20, and he spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HAGGARD: I wound up with nothing to lay on except a Bible and an old concrete slab. I don't know. There was just something about the whole situation that I knew that if I ever got out of there (laughter), that I was all finished.

CONTRERAS: Once he was paroled, he turned to songwriting. His mother had shown him a few basic guitar chords, then he taught himself the rest, falling under the spell of songwriters like Jimmie Reed, Bob Wills and Hank Williams. His hardscrabble beginnings, a fierce independence and his time behind bars - it all came pouring out in song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING ME BACK HOME")

HAGGARD: (Singing) The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom.

CONTRERAS: His 1967 song "Sing Me Back Home" was based on his time in solitary confinement, when he could hear the voice of a man condemned to die.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING ME BACK HOME")

HAGGARD: (Singing) Take me away, and turn back the years. Sing me back home before I die.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM CARTER: When Haggard sings, it's not as if he's performing. When he sings, it's as if he's confiding.

CONTRERAS: Author Tom Carter spent two years with the singer while they worked on the biography called "Merle Haggard's My House Of Memories: For The Record," which was published in 2002. In an interview recorded before the singer died, Carter says Haggard was driven by telling stories set the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARTER: He never stopped publishing his craft because he loves his craft.

CONTRERAS: That craft became a part of what was called the Bakersfield sound. During a time when Nashville was all about polished vocals over lush, orchestrated arrangements, Bakersfield musician Buck Owens led a subgenre of country music fueled by a raw honky-tonk energy with a little bit of Western swing and performed on electric rock 'n roll instruments. Merle Haggard's string of chart successes became part of the sound named after his hometown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORKING MAN BLUES")

HAGGARD: (Singing) I keep my nose on the grindstone, work hard every day. I might get a little tired on the weekend after I draw my pay, but I go back working.

CONTRERAS: Starting in 1966, Merle Haggard scored 37 top-10 country hits in a row, 23 of them reaching number one. But his success didn't guarantee an easy life for Merle Haggard. His marriages failed, and he was largely an absentee father, mostly because of the countless miles crisscrossing the country on a bus playing honky-tonks and county fairs. The lifestyle and the drinking would haunt him in his later years. He was labeled an intolerant reactionary for his 1969 song "Okie From Muskogee," in which dresses down the counterculture, something he claimed was actually satire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE")

HAGGARD: (Singing) We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don't take no trips on LSD.

CONTRERAS: At the end of his life, Merle Haggard continually found warm receptions from his fans on the road. His later albums expanded his audience beyond hardcore country music fans and often taking on a philosophical tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WHAT I AM")

HAGGARD: (Singing) I'm no longer a fugitive, and I'm not on the lam. I'm just a rambler. I am what I am.

CONTRERAS: Merle Haggard wrote the forward to his 2002 biography, and it proved to be and early summation of his life and his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAGGARD: (Reading) I've lived through 17 stays in penal institutions, incarceration in state prison, five marriages, bankruptcy, a broken back, brawls, shooting incidents, swindlings, sickness, the death of loved ones and more. I've heard 10,000 chant my name when I couldn't hear the voice of my own soul. And I wondered if God was listening. And I was sure that no one else was.

CONTRERAS: With Merle Haggard's passing, perhaps he'll finally learn that God was indeed listening and was actually a fan. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WHAT I AM")

HAGGARD: (Singing) And I'm just a seeker. I'm just a sinner. And I'll be what I am. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.