Merle Haggard has died after a series of recent health struggles. The legendary singer passed away on April 6, 2016, which was also his 79th birthday.
Haggard canceled tour dates in December of 2015 after he checked into a hospital and learned he had double pneumonia. In an interview later with Willie’s Roadhouse on Sirius XM, he said he was “nearly dead” when he was hospitalized for two weeks. He canceled shows scheduled for Jan. 30 and 31 after his double pneumonia returned. At the end of March, the legend announced he was canceling all of his scheduled shows for April on doctor’s orders.
According to Country Aircheck, Haggard had been in hospice care recently. The country icon’s manager, Frank Mull, reveals that he died of pneumonia at 9:20AM on Wednesday (April 6) in Palo Cedro, California.
Along with Buck Owens, Haggard and his band The Strangers helped create the Bakersfield sound, which is characterized by the unique twang of Fender Telecaster and the unique mix with the traditional country steel guitar sound, new vocal harmony styles in which the words are minimal, and a rough edge not heard on the more polished Nashville sound recordings of the same era.
By the 1970s, Haggard was aligned with the growing outlaw country movement, and he continued to release successful albums through the 1990s and into the 2000s. In 1994, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1997, he was inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
Though for the last decade his new recordings have received almost no airplay—in the innocently cruel Nashville taxonomy, he is classified as a living legend—Merle Ronald Haggard remains, with the arguable exception of Hank Williams, the single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history.
Haggard is certainly one of the genre’s most versatile artists. His repertory ranges wide: aching ballads (“Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Silver Wings”); sly, frisky narratives (“Old Man from the Mountain,” “It’s Been a Great Afternoon”); semi-autobiographical reflections (“Mama Tried,” “Hungry Eyes”), political commentaries (“Under the Bridge,” “Rainbow Stew”), proletarian homages (“Workin’ Man Blues,” “White Line Fever”), as well as drinking songs that are jukebox, cover-band, and closing-time standards (“Swinging Doors,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I Think I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink”).
His acolytes are legion and include many of country music’s brightest and lesser lights, as well as thousands of nightclub musicians. As fiddler Jimmy Belken, a longtime member of the Strangers, Haggard’s exemplary touring band, once told The New Yorker, “If someone out there workin’ music doesn’t bow deep to Merle, don’t trust him about much anything else.”
Haggard was born poor, though not desperately so, in Depression-era Bakersfield to Jim and Flossie Haggard, migrants from Oklahoma. Jim, a railroad carpenter, died of a stroke in 1946, forcing Flossie to find work as a bookkeeper.
Flossie was a fundamentalist Christian and a stern, somewhat overprotective mother. Not surprisingly, Merle grew quickly from rambunctious to rake-hell. By his twenty-first birthday he had run away regularly from home, been placed in two separate reform schools (from which he in turn escaped a half-dozen times), worked as a laborer, played guitar and sung informally, begun a family, and performed sporadically at southern California clubs and, for three weeks, on the Smilin’ Jack Tyree Radio Show in Springfield, Missouri. He also spent time in local jails for theft and bad checks.
His woebegone criminal career culminated in 1957 when, drunk and confused, he was caught burglarizing a Bakersfield roadhouse. After an attempted escape from county jail, he was sent to San Quentin. There, in a final burst of antisocial activity, he got drunk on prison home brew, landing himself briefly in solitary confinement. He was paroled in 1960 and, after a fitful series of odd jobs, got a regular gig playing bass for Wynn Stewart in Las Vegas.
Another Bakersfield mainstay, Fuzzy Owen, signed Haggard to his tiny Tally Records in 1962. After recording five singles there—the first release, “Skid Row” b/w “Singin’ My Heart Out,” sold few copies; the fourth, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” entered Billboard’s Top Ten (1965)—Haggard signed with Capitol. He moved to MCA in 1976, to Epic in 1981, and in 1990 to Curb.
He released his first album, Strangers, in 1965. Roughly seventy feature albums have followed. Counting repackagings, reissues, compilations, promotional and movie-soundtrack albums, as well as albums in which Haggard has participated—with the likes of Willie Nelson, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Paycheck, Bob Wills, Dean Martin, Ray Charles, and Clint Eastwood—the number of albums is likely more in the vicinity of the 150 mark.
Haggard has recorded more than 600 songs, about 250 of them his own compositions. (He often shares writing credits as gestures of financial and personal largess.) He has had thirty-eight #1 songs, and his “Today I Started Loving You Again” (Capitol, 1968) has been recorded by nearly 400 other artists.
In addition, Haggard is an accomplished instrumentalist, playing a commendable fiddle and a to-be-reckoned-with lead guitar. He and the Strangers played for Richard Nixon at the White House in 1973, at a barbecue on the Reagan ranch in 1982, at Washington’s Kennedy Center, and 60,000 miles from earth—courtesy of astronaut Charles Duke, who brought a tape aboard Apollo 16 in 1972. Haggard has won numerous CMA and ACM Awards including both organizations’ 1970 Entertainer of the Year awards, been nominated for scores of others, was elected to the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1977, and won Country Music Hall of Fame membership in 1994. In 1984 he won a Grammy in the Best Country Vocal Performance, Male category for “That’s the Way Love Goes.”
Even so, he has remained famously independent (he once walked out on an imminent appearance on the Ed Sullivan television show), and he has kept himself at arm’s length from musical Nashville’s sociopolitical vortex. He currently lives near Redding, in northern California, well away from music industry power centers.
There is no such thing as a typical Merle Haggard concert. He prides himself on riding the winds of whim and cussedness and, on any given night, might divert from chart and fan favorites and give himself over to a long set of songs by Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell, or Bob Wills. The three men constitute Haggard’s most lasting musical influences. Additionally, he takes great pride in the Strangers’ musicianship, and their importance transcends that of mere sidemen. The band has ranged in number from three to ten over the years, incorporates such atypical country instruments as trombones, trumpets, and saxophones, and has included long-respected players such as Roy Nichols, Norm Hamlet, Biff Adam, and Clint Strong. The Strangers themselves have garnered eight ACM Touring Band of the Year awards.
Ironically, Haggard is inextricably linked with a casual ditty that shifted attention from his soaring musicianship to his politics. “Okie from Muskogee” (Capitol, 1969), a #1 song for four weeks and the 1970 Single of the Year for both the ACM and CMA, is a seemingly belligerent and defensive screen of traditional American-heartland values that appeared at the height of the fractious decade of the Vietnam War. Haggard’s retellings of the song’s intent are manifold and contradictory. In 1974 he told a Michigan newspaper reporter, “Son, the only place I don’t smoke is Muskogee.” A dozen years later, however, he told the Birmingham Post-Herald that “Okie” was “a patriotic song that went to the top of the charts at a time when patriotism wasn’t really that popular.” Although he has frequently bemoaned the public’s perception of him as a political animal, he followed “Okie” with the truly angry “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (Capitol, 1970) and, in 1988, a sentimental reaction to flag burning, “Me and Crippled Soldiers.”
Nor has Haggard’s personal life been without drama. His business acumen is notoriously erratic, and he has been married five times. At the time that this was written, he had five children, four by his first wife, Leona Hobbs, and one by his present wife, Theresa Lane. From 1965 to 1978 Haggard was married to singer Bonnie Owens, with whom he recorded a duet album, Just Between the Two of Us (Capitol, 1966) and who is a regular member of Haggard’s musical company. He was also married for a time to singer Leona Williams, who wrote his #1 hits “You Take Me for Granted” and “Someday When Things are Good” (co-written with Haggard).
In 2000 Haggard aligned himself with Los Angeles-based punk label Epitaph Records to release If I Could Only Fly on its Anti imprint. Just as Johnny Cash had done by moving to rock- and rap-oriented American Records, Haggard inspired a flurry of media attention with his choice for a label home. On his second release for Anti, Roots Volume 1 (2001), Haggard worked with guitarist Norm Stephens, who played on Frizzell’s early recordings. On Hag Records, his own label, Haggard issued two gospel albums in 2001 and was slated to release Haggard Like Never Before in 2003. A single, “That’s the News,” criticized the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq.
We’ve lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads. I loved him like a brother. Rest easy, Merle. — Dolly Parton
We’ve lost another hero. Now he doesn’t have to be in pain anymore. I know he’s not suffering anymore. I just can’t imagine a world without Merle. It’s so hard to accept, but I’ll continue honoring him on stage just as I do during every show. We played a lot of gigs together through the years, but some of my fondest memories were hanging out in a natural setting, like the time we sat there by the river in his backyard and ate bologna sandwiches. Merle was a simple man with incredible talent like no other. And now he’s up there singing with George [Jones] and all the angels. Love you, Merle. — Tanya Tucker
Merle Haggard was an original. Not just a singer, not just a songwriter, not just another famous performer. He was your common everyday working man. 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. — Hank Williams, Jr.
My heart is broken over the loss of one of the greatest country singers ever. He was an icon to me. He took me to school with his phrasing, his songwriting and style – and he was undoubtedly one of my greatest influences. Getting to sing with him several times over the years will be memories I cherish forever. He was such a great man, on stage and off. — Gene Watson
Merle Haggard was one of the greatest songwriters, performers and story-tellers that ever lived. I grew up on his music and am I’m so saddened by his passing. — Kiefer Sutherland
I am deeply saddened to hear of Merle’s passing. He was a dear friend, I remember touring with him at various points throughout the 90’s and those are memories that I will always cherish. I hate that he lived so far away from us these last few years, but definitely understand it. My hope is that he passed a happy and content man. I learned so much from this kind man about singing, when Merle Haggard sang you paid attention. He is about as close to perfection in country music as we will probably ever have. — Lorrie Morgan
I am devastated over the loss of Merle Haggard. He was my absolute favorite of ALL time. I have listened to him since I was a kid. His poetry, his voice and his pure country music style will live forever. I am listening to him sing Sweet Jesus with The Oak Ridge Boys as I write this. SO honored to have recorded this Dove Award winning song with my HERO! Rest Easy Hag… Until The Day…“Jesus… Sweet Jesus…You love me just as I am… Jesus… Sweet Jesus… I’ve been washed in the Blood of the Lamb!” — Joe Bonsall / Oak Ridge Boys
A few years ago Merle sent me a song he wanted The Oak Ridge Boys to record. He’d written it with Kenny Vernon. When I heard it, I felt there was no way we could do it unless we asked Merle to do it with us.
His response was, “Anything you ‘Boys’ want.”
So, we recorded “Sweet Jesus,” and it won a Gospel Music Association Dove Award for Best Country Song. It was a huge honor to sing with one of our biggest heroes, Merle Haggard.
May he rest in peace in the arms of Sweet Jesus. — Duane Allen / Oak Ridge Boys
Merle was a singer’s singer, a musician’s musician, and a songwriter’s songwriter. He set the feelings of the everyday common man to music, creating songs that will outlive us all. I feel privileged to have toured with him and known him as both a great artist and as a friend. His passing leaves a big hole in country music and in the hearts of the millions who loved him and his artistry. — Bill Anderson
Merle always treated me like a true friend treats his true friends. We had great fun every time we worked together. He was one of the good ones. Getting to see God’s face on your birthday, what a wonderful gift! — T. Graham Brown
George and I loved Merle so much. George would always say nobody could ever sing like Merle Haggard. Merle was one of our Country Heroes. Now, George and Merle are together again singing with the Angel Band. — Nancy Jones
We join the world of the broken hearted hearing of the death of Merle Haggard. One of the first things John and I realized we had in common was our love of Haggard songs. What a blessing to have had a chance to get to know him and work with such a legend in our career. Merle, guess you finally are on the ultimate Natural High. We will have your music in our hearts and souls and honkytonk nights forever! God Bless the great Merle Haggard. May you fly with the Angels. — ‘Big Kenny’ Alphin / Big & Rich
“Mighty” Merle Haggard was the greatest country songwriter of ALL TIME. We shared many great memories, and I will miss him. Merle set the bar so high no one will ever top it. He refused to bend and turn to the whims of the music industry throughout the decades, and instead remained a steady ship of constant greatness that every artist could look up to and aspire to be. I had the distinct honor of becoming his friend and spent priceless time picking guitars on the back of his bus, doing videos together, and I soaked up every drop of soul from him every chance I got. You take your hat off when you shake hands with Merle Haggard. You listen and pay attention and realize that you are in the company of one of God’s prize creations. I will miss him. I bet Heaven has swingin’ doors today. — John Rich / Big & Rich
We’ve lost another great one. Merle leaves a great legacy behind, the songs, the styling, the phrasing….to study Merle’s musical style was to immerse yourself in the heart of Country. For months we’ve been planning a Tribute to Merle, the guest have been invited and Merle had it on his calendar. We will miss him greatly. Now the tribute will be a honoring of the man his songs, his music and his life. — Larry Black, Larry’s Country Diner
He was the genius of the last half century in country music and we will all miss him and nobody can replace him. — Leroy Van Dyke
It was a tremendous opportunity to be able to sing duets with Merle and for that to be a part of my life. What a great difference it made to me to be able to work on Merle’s records. It was like a dream come true… I never would have imagined to be able to sing duets with all the great artists that I’ve worked with. Merle has been such a special part of my life, I’m just proud to have great memories of working with him. — Janie Fricke
He’s my hero and I’ll never forget recording ‘Don’t Sing Me No Songs About Texas’ with Merle. To hear hear him on the same track as me was amazing. Merle was the master. The ultimate writer, musician and singer. He did it all. And I will miss him so much. — Moe Bandy
Merle Haggard’s death not only signifies the passing of the greatest singer Country Music has ever known, but also resonates hard with us personally. At our house we considered Merle almost a family member, from the early days when our dad would wake us up for school by playing one of his albums to years later when we played many shows together with Merle on tour. The first show we played with Merle – he came barreling on to our tour bus looking for a place to hide while the police were searching his bus. By the time that incident got cleared up we’d become friends. We let him know he could hide out on our bus anytime he needed to and we continued to tour many more times with him and collect lots more Merle stories over the years. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family today and may God rest his soul. — David and Howard Bellamy, The Bellamy Brothers
He did our Statler Brothers TV show a few times and I got to know him over the years. He was one of the most influential people in this business. He is going to be sorely missed. Heaven’s band just got another great member much like so many of our other heroes who have passed. We will miss him dearly. — Jimmy Fortune
It’s a very sad day for the world to lose the great Merle Haggard. I still can’t believe it. The last time I saw him was just outside of the Station Inn here in Nashville. We stood in the middle of the road and laughed and talked. I can still see the sparkle in his eye. He had such a beautiful spirit. I treasure that memory. Even beyond his amazing songs and music, it was easy to see why Merle was so loved. He will missed forever. — Deborah Allen
I have lost a dear friend, but Country music and its fans have lost one of its greatest treasures. One of my greatest memories of Hag was always speaking on Christmas and catching up, as well as having toured and sang with him. — T.G. Sheppard
I am still sitting here processing the news I just learned of the passing of Merle Haggard and ironically on his birthday. Remembering precious memories of meeting him just one year ago, sitting on his bus, talking about how he continued to write songs each and every day. He even mentioned he had a song for me. How special it was, as he listened to us sing, and after he even played Hunter’s fiddle. His music will live forever! Our sincere condolences to his family. Rest In Sweet Peace “Mighty Merle”!! — Rhonda Vincent
Being that I was a huge Merle Haggard fan, he was one of the ones that I did a couple of shows with early in my career. He welcomed me into the music industry. It’s extremely sad when you see people like “The Hag” leave us – he’s been huge, the industry is what it is today because of great musicians/artists/songwriters like him. — Mark Wills
My friendship goes back to 1963 when Merle was voted Most Promising Male Vocalist and I was voted Most Promising Female Vocalist by VIP, which later became the ACM Awards. When I first met Merle, I was a little intimidated because my mom warned me of anybody who had been in prison. I got over my fears and we became very close through the years. He recorded two of my songs “Life of a Rodeo Cowboy” and “My Love For You.” And I sang backup for him on “Ramblin Fever” and “Always On A Mountain When I Fall.” His passing is such a loss to not only me personally, but our entire industry. We all loved the Hag. — Jeannie Seely
Via and adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press