By Greg Cahill
Merle Haggard, the outlaw-country icon who rose from a life of poverty and imprisonment to become one of America’s most influential artists, died April 6 on his birthday. He was 79.
During the past 15 years, Haggard had recorded some of his most compelling—and angriest—work. “In order to go where it’s interesting, you’ve got to go where it hurts,” he told Acoustic Guitar magazine in a 2005 interview.
His commercial peak came in the late 1960s and ’70s, when he cut some of the hurtingest country music ever recorded and scored a string of hits that included “Branded Man,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Mama Tried,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and “Working Man’s Blues,” all of them painfully autobiographical.
But his most recent album, 2015’s Django and Jimmie, a duo session with longtime friend Willie Nelson, is still riding high on the country charts.
The California son of dustbowl refugees, Haggard grew up on the wrong side of the tracks — literally, in an abandoned boxcar. He lost his father at nine years old, hopped his first freight train at 10, and began a long series of run-ins with the law at 14. Along the way, he inherited a love of music, making his performing debut at 12 for $2.50 and all the beer he could drink. When, at 20, he landed in San Quentin prison in California for attempted burglary, he played guitar in the jail’s country band.
After his parole in 1960, Haggard followed his dream of becoming a country singer, moving to Bakersfield, where he met Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley, who encouraged him to write songs. They recorded his early efforts that led to local, then regional, then national stardom. The hits started in 1966, and didn’t slow down until the late ’70s, when “Footlights” seemed to sum up the last stages of his career: “I live the kind of life most men only dream of / I make my living writing songs and singing them / But I’m fortysome years old and I ain’t got no place to go / When it’s over / So I hide my age and make the stage and / Try to kick the footlights out again.”
Instead, Haggard kept going, though the hits dried up by the mid-’80s. He dropped in and out of the public eye, recording album after album with little commercial response. With a new marriage, two teenage children, and the release of 2005’s If I Could Only Fly, all that changed. Working out of his home studio, Haggard spent his time raising a new family, trying to stay healthy, and fingerpicking acoustic guitar to spare his back the pain of playing Telecaster rhythm.
In 2008, Haggard underwent surgery for lung cancer and had been hospitalized several times recently, most notably for pneumonia, which forced several concert postponements and cancellations in 2015 and this year.
Kenny Berkowitz contributed to this article.