Merle Haggard, one of the greatest singers and songwriters in country music history, died today on his 79th birthday. Haggard sang about his rough early life as an ex-convict born during the Great Depression, and his rowdy yet traditional musical style was a challenge to the smooth pop styles coming out of Nashville in the ’60s and ’70s.
5 Surprising Facts About Merle Haggard
- Merle Haggard was born in a boxcar. It was 1937, in the middle of the Depression, and Haggard’s parents had relocated to Bakersfield, Calif., after their barn in Oklahoma burned down. Merle’s father remodeled the car to make it feel like home, eventually adding a bathroom, another bedroom, a kitchen and even a breakfast nook.
- In 1958, Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin Prison. Merle was an inmate at the time — he’d been sentenced to 15 years for robbery and for an attempted jailbreak. He was released after serving two years.
- In the early ’60s, Haggard and his band, The Strangers, helped popularize “the Bakersfield sound” alongside Buck Owens and The Buckaroos. The California-based honky-tonk style was rooted in the hardscrabble music of Jimmy Rodgers and the western swing of Bob Wills, with a little rock ‘n’ roll thrown in. It was a reaction to the slick, string-laden “Nashville sound” that dominated country music at the time.
- In 1972, California Governor Ronald Reagan pardoned Haggard for all his past crimes — a shock to Haggard, who’d expected the process to drag on for years. In 1982, when Reagan was president, he invited Haggard to perform at the White House, and the singer quipped from the stage: “I hope the President will be as pleased with my performance today as I was with his pardon 10 years ago.”
- Haggard was always cagey about how seriously he expected listeners to take his Vietnam-era anthem of conservative values, Okie from Muskogee. He sometimes claimed he and his band wrote it as a spoof while driving across Oklahoma, while other times he said it was an honest expression of anger against the war protests. But Haggard probably summed it up best when he told Rolling Stone in 2009: “The reason I wrote it is was because I was dumb as a rock.”
10 of Haggard’s Greatest Hits
Between 1966 and 19878 Merle Haggard had 38 No. 1 country hits. Here are 10 of his greatest.
I’m a Lonesome Fugitive (1966)
Sing Me Back Home (1968)
Mama Tried (1968)
Hungry Eyes (1969)
Workin’ Man Blues (1969)
Okie from Muskogee (1969)
The Fightin’ Side of Me (1970)
If We Make It Through December (1973)
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink (1980)
Big City (1981)
Keith Harris has written about music and pop culture for more than 20 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Rolling Stone, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Slate and Salon. He lives in Minneapolis and blogs at usefulnoise.wordpress.com.
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