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Merle Haggard, one of the most influential and revered American singers and songwriters of the 20th century, died on his 79th birthday on Wednesday after being diagnosed with double pneumonia late last year.
Born in 1937 to a pair of Dust Bowl migrants near Bakersfield, California, Haggard would go on to define what came to be known as “the Bakersfield sound” and become perhaps the most influential country singer of his generation with his singular blend of traditional, hard-edged country music that drew influences from bluegrass, jazz, and blues.
Growing up in a converted boxcar in a migrant camp on the outskirts of Bakersfield, Haggard ran into trouble with the law countless times as an adolescent, finding himself imprisoned at San Quentin as a 21 year old. He first saw Johnny Cash perform as an inmate at San Quentin, and by the time he was released, a few years later, Haggard began writing songs and performing around Bakersfield, releasing his first single, “Skid Row,” in 1962.
A few years later, Haggard topped the country charts for the first time with “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” Over the next decade, Haggard would achieve a staggering degree of mainstream success, scoring twenty-four #1 country singles between 1966-1976 with his signature songs like “Mama Tried,” “Hungry Eyes,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “If We Make it Through December” and “Grandma Harp.”
In his music, Haggard wrote and sang about poverty, existential despair, isolation, heartbreak and family with sensitivity, nuance and humor. “As much as any American musical artist, Haggard, in his music, has intersected with the great issues of his times–those surrounding class and race, war and peace, and most of all, freedom,” wrote critic David Cantwell in his 2013 book on Merle Haggard.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s Haggard entered middle age more gracefully than nearly any of his contemporaries as he continued to sell millions of records and score massive hits with some of the best material of his career, songs like “I Guess I’ll Just Sit Here and Drink,” “Big City,” “Misery and Gin” and “Kern River.” In 1994, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In the ensuing years, Haggard recorded several albums that traced his roots with covers of songs by artists like Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson, and Jimmie Rodgers.
“We need to have music that contributes to the well-being of the spirit,” Haggard told American Songwriter in 2010. “Music that cradles people’s lives and make things a little easier.”
Despite his advanced age, Haggard remained as busy as ever in recent years, traveling the country with contemporaries like Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and releasing critically-acclaimed late-career statements like I Am What I Am and Django & Jimmie, his 2015 collaboration with Nelson that would end up being the last record of his career.
“That’s what keeps me alive,” Haggard said to American Songwriter. “That hope that I’ll write the song that’ll knock me out and that will be better than ‘Working Man Blues,’ and better than ‘Mama Tried.’ That’s my reason for believing.”