Merle Haggard Dead on His 79th Birthday

merle haggard

Country music legend, and Oildale native, Merle Haggard has passed away today.  Today also happens to be his 79th birthday.  Haggard has died after a brief struggle with pneumonia. The singer will always be remembered as one of the pioneers of the Bakersfield sound. Haggard was also involved in the Outlaw Country movement.

Over the last few months, Haggard has not been well. On December 5 last year, Haggard was treated at an undisclosed hospital in California for pneumonia. He made a recovery, but postponed several concerts. In March of this year, Haggard was once again hospitalized with pneumonia. Concerts for April were cancelled due to his ongoing battle with double pneumonia. 

Merle Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, near Bakersfield, California. The son of a railroad worker, Haggard grew up in Depression-era California and lived with his family in a box car that they had converted into their home. As a child, he was plagued by a respiratory condition, which frequently kept him out of school and confined to bed rest. In 1945 life grew even more difficult when his father died of a stroke, forcing his mother to find work and leave her young son in the care of family members. 

Left to his own devices, Haggard developed into a rebellious teen, compiling a criminal record that included such offenses as truancy, passing phony checks and grand theft auto. At the same time, he nurtured a musical talent that he had inherited from his father-who had been a fiddle player and guitarist before starting a family-teaching himself to play the guitar. As he got older his escalating juvenile delinquency frequently landed him in reform facilities and county jails, but when he wasn't serving time he worked in the oil fields during the day and indulged his love music at night, playing guitar in local bars and clubs.

In 1958, at the age of 20, Merle Haggard was sent to San Quentin prison after being convicted for burglary and attempted escape from county jail. While serving a 2 1/2-year term, he played in the prison's country band and took high school equivalency courses. He also was a member of the audience when Johnny Cash made his legendary 1959 performance at the prison. (Haggard woudl later be officially pardoned in 1972 by then governor of California Ronald Reagan.)

Upon his parole in 1960, Haggard returned to Bakersfield, where he sang and played guitar in the honky-tonks of "Beer Can Hill," the hub of the city's burgeoning country music scene, whose grittier sound stood in contrast to the softer and safer country music coming out of Nashville.

After gaining a loyal local following in his hometown, Haggard traveled to Las Vegas, where he began playing bass guitar for Wynn Stewart. In 1962, he signed with a small label called Tally Records, for whom he recorded five songs, including his debut single "Sing a Sad Song," which rose to No. 19 on the country charts. In 1965 Haggard formed his own backing band, the Strangers, before signing with Capitol Records, and later that year, the band released their debut self-titled album. Their follow-up album, Swinging Doors, reached No. 1 on the country the following year, and in 1967 their single "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" did the same. Later that year, Haggard doubled down on their runaway success with "Branded Man," his first self-penned No. 1 song.

In addition to 40 #1 hits, Haggard has won just about every music award. Last month, Haggard's hit "Mama Tried" was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry. Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, he is in the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.

Haggard has had more than 100 country chart singles, 38 No. 1 hits and close to 70 albums. He was able to play for President Nixon in 1973 and later performed for the Reagans. He has more than 600 songs under his belt, and Haggard wrote around 250 himself. Fans are especially fond of albums The Fightin' Side of Me (1970), Someday We'll Look Back (1971), If We Make It Through December (1974) and A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today (1977).

In his career, Haggard has won Entertainer of the Year, Grammy Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, the Crystal Milestone Award and countless others.

Haggard was elected to the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1977, and in 1994, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He battled lung cancer in 2008 and was granted full health soon after.

Haggard married his fifth wife, Theresa Lane, in 1993 and has five children from previous marriages.

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