Merle Haggard, the influential country singer-songwriter who helped build “The Bakersfield Sound” and hits like “Mama Tried” and “Okie from Muskogee,” died Wednesday, his 79th birthday, at his home in Redding, California, after battling double pneumonia.
“A week ago dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday and he wasn’t wrong,” Haggard’s son, Ben, wrote on Facebook. “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.”
Haggard, who released the “Django and Jimmie” album last year with Willie Nelson, had just released a statement last week, offering hope to return to the road after canceling all his concerts for April. “I want to thank my fans for their prayers and well wishes,” Haggard said. “I hope to be back on the road in May, but I’m taking it one day at a time.”
It’s fitting that those are Haggard’s final public words, considering how he lived his life one day at a time, overcoming his setbacks and turning them into strengths.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born in 1937 in Oildale, California, and his childhood grew tougher after his father, James, died when Haggard was 9. There were stints in reform schools and jail for attempted burglary. However, he realized music was his calling while in prison at San Quentin, after watching Johnny Cash’s famous concert there in 1958.
Along with Buck Owens, Haggard helped create “The Bakersfield Sound” in the ’60s, a rougher, tougher country sound compared to what was coming out of Nashville at the time, relying on twanging bits of honky tonk and Western swing rather than pop and ballads.
Though Haggard’s initial success was with songs by others, including Wynn Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song” and Liz Anderson’s “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” Haggard’s real breakthrough came when he started writing for himself. Starting in 1967 with “I Threw Away the Rose,” Haggard landed 37 straight Top 10 hits on the country chart, including 23 No. 1 singles.
His no-nonsense style and straight-talking singles, often about his own experiences and those of the working class, influenced generations of country artists and brought in countless new fans, including President Richard Nixon, who fell so hard for Haggard’s hit “Okie from Muskogee” and its championing of small-town values that he declared October 1970, Country Music Month in America. Nixon also invited Haggard and his band The Strangers to play for his wife Pat’s birthday party in 1973, which Haggard said he managed though extremely hung over.
Dolly Parton said in a statement that she loved Haggard like a brother, adding: “We’ve lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads.”
Carrie Underwood tweeted her love and prayers for Haggard’s family. “Merle was a pioneer . . . a true entertainer . . . a legend,” she wrote. “There will never be another like him.”
Hank Williams Jr., called Haggard “an original.” “He was your common everyday working man,” Williams said in a statement. “I remember when I was 15 years old on tour with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. They both were wondering which one of the two was going to make it. Well, they both made it. Today, ole Merle joined Waylon, George, and daddy to sing in the Heavenly choir.”
Haggard is survived by his wife, Theresa, their children Ben and Jenessa, and his children from his first marriage, Dana, Kelli, Marty and Noel.