Country music has suffered a devastating loss today, as country music icon Merle Haggard has passed away. Merle was 79 years old. Merle was a giant of the industry, piling up 38 number one hits and countless awards. His music influenced many of the brightest stars in country music, and his resilient attitude inspired many others. No doubt, he will be remembered as one of the greatest singers, songwriters, and performers to ever call country music home.
Merle was born in 1937 in California in a box car. Yes, you read that right. Merle's father, James, remodeled the boxcar into a small house. James died when Merle was young, leaving his mother to take care of the family. Merle became quite the rebellious teenager, and spent many a night in jail or on the run. He was arrested many times for various crimes, mostly related to burglary or fighting. Along with getting in trouble, Merle was honing his skills as a country music singer, influenced by Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Bob Wills. While serving time locked up in San Quinten Prison, he planned an escape with an inmate named "Rabbit". After watching a performance by Johnny Cash at the prison, Merle decided to attempt to get on the straight and narrow and pursue a country music career. It's a good thing he did. Rabbit shot a police officer after his escape and wound up on death row.
His musical career did end up taking off. Along with Buck Owens, Merle defined the "Bakersfield Sound", a more organic musical direction in opposition to the overly produced music of Nashville at the time. The sound relied more on steel guitar, high vocal harmony, and twangy guitars. He recorded a slew of hits that have become country music standards. "Okie From Muskogee", a song written from his father's point of view, was a staple of the late 60's during the Vietnam Era. "Sing Me Back Home" told the tale of a prisoner during his final hours. "Silver Wings" and "Today I Started Loving You Again" showed off his tender side, while ""The Fightin' Side Of Me" showed off his fierce patriotism and his unwillingness to back down to anybody. "Workin' Man's Blues" became an anthem for the blue collar crowd that always related to Merle. "If We Make It Through December" also appealed to those working class folks, and proved that Merle was a top notch storyteller. Of course, his most famous line of "I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole, no one could steer me right, but mama tried" came from the mega-hit "Mama Tried". Many hold "Mama Tried" as one of the greatest country songs of all time, myself included. Many current stars and legends alike list Merle as a primary influence.
In his later years, Merle continued to tour and record music. He released a duet album with Willie Nelson in 2015 titled Django & Jimmie, a tribute to their musical heroes and a throwback to their duet "Pancho & Lefty". In 2010, Merle was honored in Washington, D.C. as part of the Kennedy Center Honors. He developed lung cancer in 2008, and performed a show two nights after having surgery to remove the cancer. He came down with a case of pneumonia in late 2015. He continued touring, despite many setbacks. Eventually, he passed away on April 6, 2016 to complications from the illness. He was 79 years old.
If there was a Mount Rushmore of country music, Merle Haggard would be on it. He was one of the most prolific artists of all time. He was a triple threat: a great singer, writer, and picker. He could do it all. He could tell a story that would make you cry, sing about the struggles of the working man and make you feel empowered, and sing a honky-tonker that would just make you kick back and have a good time. He leaves behind a legacy of music that can never be duplicated. The life of Merle Haggard has influenced and touched so many. Not too shabby for a kid who spent time in and out of jail for most of his youth. Merle took the hand he was dealt and made something of himself. He lived the American Dream. Nobody can ever replace Merle Haggard. Let's remember him the best way I know how: with his music.
"The Fightin' Side Of Me"
"Sing Me Back Home"
"Okie From Muskogee"
"Workin' Man's Blues"
"If We Make It Through December"
"Today I Started Loving You Again"
Merle Haggard 1937-2016
Goodbye Merle, you will be missed.