Merle Haggard, ‘Okie From Muskogee’ Country Singer, Dies at 79

  • Hardscrabble life included stint in San Quentin State Prison
  • He received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2006

Merle Haggard, the country music star who emerged from the Bakersfield, California, music scene during the 1960s and criticized hippies at the height of the Vietnam War in “Okie from Muskogee,” has died. He was 79.

He died Wednesday, on his birthday, in Palo Cedro, California, the Associated Press reported, citing Haggard’s manager, Frank Mull. The cause was pneumonia.

Haggard’s music drew from folk, jazz, pop, blues and Western swing as well as traditional country. His lyrics paid tribute to the common man and incorporated tales from his life, including a stint in California’s San Quentin State Prison before his rise to stardom.

“There was a time when I was afraid to admit how much I wanted the music,” Haggard wrote in “Sing Me Back Home,” a 1981 autobiography co-written by Peggy Russell. “Work, to me, was digging ditches, working in the hay fields, eight hours on a factory line, or picking cotton -- not strumming on a guitar and singing some songs.”

Silent Majority

“Okie,” released in 1969, turned him into a spokesman for President Richard Nixon’s so-called silent majority. The single was one of 38 songs Haggard recorded that reached No. 1 on the Billboard magazine country charts between 1966 and 1987. He also rose to the top spot 15 times on the country album charts during those years.

Haggard’s other hits included “Mama Tried,” recorded by the Grateful Dead for its so-called skull and roses live album, and “The Bottle Let Me Down,” covered by Elvis Costello.

In May 2008, Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer. Doctors removed a malignant tumor from his right lung six months later. He told the Bakersfield Californian newspaper that he rejected treatment initially and then changed his mind.

Merle Ronald Haggard was born April 6, 1937, in Bakersfield and grew up in nearby Oildale. He was the third child of James Haggard, a railroad worker and one-time fiddle player, and Flossie Harp. His brother, Lowell, and his sister, Lillian, were more than a decade older.

Converted Boxcar

Haggard’s family had moved to California from Checotah, an Oklahoma town about half an hour away from Muskogee, three years earlier. Their Oildale home was a converted railroad boxcar.

When Haggard was 9 years old, his father died of a brain tumor. His mother started working as a bookkeeper and he was shuttled between relatives.

At 12, he received his first guitar from his brother and taught himself to play. He quit school in the eighth grade and made his stage debut at 15, when country singer Lefty Frizzell heard him backstage before a concert and had him perform.

Haggard grew up committing petty crimes -- truancy, theft, fighting, drinking -- and going to reform school. He eventually had 17 stays in penal institutions, according to “My House of Memories,” a 1999 autobiography written with Tom Carter.

Robbery Conviction

Before turning 21, he landed in San Quentin on a robbery conviction. He and two others had broken into a restaurant. Haggard served two years and nine months of a five-year term before being paroled in 1960. He was pardoned by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan 12 years later.

After leaving San Quentin, he returned to his first wife, Leona Hobbs, even though she had given birth to another man’s child while he was away. The couple lived in his family’s boxcar home and had a daughter, Dana, before he went to prison. They later had another daughter, Kelli, and two sons, Marty and Noel, before divorcing in 1964.

Haggard worked for his brother as a ditch digger while making his way in Bakersfield’s music scene, known for a sound that featured electric guitars and wasn’t limited to traditional country. The style had risen to national prominence after singer Buck Owens became a star.

Tally Records

Wynn Stewart, another local singer who had broken out nationally, hired him as a bass player in 1962. Haggard spent six months in Stewart’s band and recorded one of his boss’s songs for Tally Records, a label based in Bakersfield. The single, “Sing a Sad Song,” hit the top 20 on the country charts.

Another single, “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” made the top 10 in 1965. Capitol Records signed him after his success with that song, whose title inspired the name of the backing band he formed that year, the Strangers.

“The Fugitive,” a 1966 release also known as “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” was his first No. 1 country single. “The Bottle Let Me Down” rose to the top five earlier in the year, as did another single, “Swinging Doors.”

From 1966 until 1975, he topped Billboard’s country singles and album charts at least once every year. “Mama Tried” was a top-selling single in 1968, and “Okie” followed suit the next year. “If We Make It Through December,” released in 1973, was his only top-40 single on the pop charts.

Possibly Satire

“Okie” took its title from a slang term for an Oklahoma native and the name of the town near his parents’ former home. The first verse established its anti-hippie attitude, which Haggard later described as satire:
“We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee / And we don’t take our trips on LSD / We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street / But we like livin’ right and bein’ free.”

Another of his songs, “Today I Started Loving You Again,” was recorded more than 400 times. He wrote the song in 1968, the same year he married Owens’s former wife, Bonnie, who had recorded a duet with him.

As Haggard’s streak of years with No. 1 singles and albums ran out, he left Capitol for MCA Records. He also divorced Owens and married singer Leona Williams, who had toured with him -- as Owens herself did later.

New Labels

In 1980, he returned to the top of the singles charts with “Bar Room Buddies,” a duet with actor Clint Eastwood. The hit followed his appearance in the movie “Bronco Billy,” in which Eastwood starred and directed.

Haggard moved to Epic Records the next year and added to his No. 1 hits, including two more duets: “Yesterday’s Wine,” with George Jones, and “Pancho and Lefty,” with Willie Nelson. He won a Grammy Award as a solo artist for another chart-topper, “That’s the Way Love Goes,” released in 1983.

“Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star,” made in 1987, was Haggard’s last No. 1 single. He spent the 1990s with Curb, a country label affiliated with MCA. He moved to Epitaph Records and later started his own label, Hag Records.

His personal life was equally unsettled. He and Williams divorced in 1983, and he wed Deborah Parret two years later. He fell in love with another woman, Theresa Ann Lane, and moved in with her even though he was legally married to Parret.

Lifetime Achievement

Haggard was finally divorced in 1991, and he married Lane after they both kicked drug habits. The couple had a daughter, Jenessa, and a son, Ben.

In 1993, the same year that Haggard and Lane were wed, he filed for bankruptcy. Years of free spending and bad business deals left him unable to pay his taxes and other debts.

He rebounded to win a 1998 Grammy as one of 13 artists on “Same Old Train,” a song from an album of traditional country tunes covered by contemporary musicians. The National Academy of Record Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the Grammy Awards, gave him a lifetime achievement award in 2006.

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