America lost a legend Wednesday, April 6, 2016, when Merle Haggard passed away.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California. His family had moved away from Checotah, Oklahoma to Bakersfield, California during the middle of the Great Depression after their barn burned down. Three years later, Merle was born.
His father, who worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, died in 1945 from a brain hemorrhage and that had a large impact on him growing up.
His early musical influences were Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Cowboy Bob Wills. He even sang backstage for Frizzell who insisted Haggard sing on stage before his own performance. That was what launched him into his musical career.
He was a juvenile delinquent in Texas and California growing up. He attempted a robbery in Bakersfield in 1957 and was sent to San Quentin after trying to escape from a local jail. While at San Quentin, his wife became pregnant by another man. Haggard grew depressed and was fired from several prison jobs. He planned an escape attempt with another inmate, but other inmates talked him out of it. The inmate who escaped later returned to San Quentin for his execution after shooting a police officer.
That inmate’s plight, along with an author he met who was serving time on Death Row, convinced Haggard to turn things around. He kept a steady prison job, got a GED, and joined the prison’s country music band. He joined the band after attending Johnny Cash’s famous performance at San Quentin in 1958.
He started out digging ditches when he got out of prison, which was about the time the Bakersfield Sound was emerging. His career took off with a number of hits. I won’t go into detail on his musical career at this point.
In 1972, Haggard was pardoned by California Governor Ronald Reagan. In 1973, Merle Haggard performed for President Richard Nixon at an Evening at the White House.
Merle Haggard recorded 38 #1 hits. He was awarded three Grammy Awards and numerous CMA and ACM awards. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Haggard was inducted into Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. He also was given an honorary doctorate by Cal State Bakersfield.
He was not a fan of modern country music (I agree with a lot of those criticisms) but he did praise Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, and George Strait. There were tributes to him in songs by numerous artists including Eric Church, Shooter Jennings, Brooks & Dunn, Colin Raye, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and many others.
The songs I always thought of when it came to Merle Haggard were Mama Tried, Workin’ Mans Blues, Okie from Muscogee, and Fightin’ Side of Me. They all resonated for me at some point and still do – especially the last two I named.
Remembering Merle Haggard
Here’s an Eric Church song, “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag”, released in 2006
W. Earl Brown made a post today about Merle Haggard’s last show. I don’t think the Facebook settings will let me embed it here so I will link to it and post the text:
Merle’s Final Show. It was Super Bowl weekend. Merle had already cancelled months of shows, but this particular booking was a big payday. Merle had to pay his band and crew, so there was no calling in sick for this gig.
Toby Keith was in town with his wife to watch some football and have some fun. Toby got word that Merle was in Vegas, so he went to see him… Merle was in bad shape. He needed to be in a hospital – not on a stage; but The Show Must Go On. Merle would not take charity from anyone, but he did turn to Toby and say, “How many songs of mine do you know?”
“All of ’em” answered T.
“All of ’em?”
“Yep. And I won’t need a teleprompter.”
“Well, stay nearby.” After four or five songs, Merle’s infected lungs were spent. He couldn’t draw enough air to sing any longer. “We’ve, uh, we’ve got a special guest here tonight…” Toby came out and sang the rest of the show. Merle gave his last concert. The Strangers got paid. And the audience, while not realizing it at the time, saw something special.
Never speak ill of Toby Keith to me; thanks to him, Merle exited the stage with his dignity intact.
A week ago dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn’t wrong. A hour ago 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.
Rolling Stone magazine had a lot of news coverage of Merle Haggard’s passing Wednesday. They included in this a list of his 30 Essential Songs. I made a Spotify playlist of these 30 songs and it’s embedded below. Please listen, share it, and add it on Spotify. If you think any other songs need to be added, please suggest them in the comments on this blog post below.