Country music legend Merle Haggard passed away yesterday at his home in California. He died of complications from pneumonia. He had just turned seventy-nine - that day. Haggard was also born in California, to parents who were true Okies and had moved with his older siblings from Oklahoma to California a couple of years before Merle's birth. The impoverished Haggard family was motivated to leave Oklahoma when their barn burned. They settled in California's Central Valley where Haggard's father found work with the railroad - and for a time the family lived in a boxcar that the father had remodeled. It was a hard existence that could have been penned by John Steinbeck.
Merle Haggard burst onto the national music scene in the mid-1960's with a song called "Swinging Doors." By the time I was in college in the late 1960's he had a couple of monster hits on the country charts - a pair of angry redneck anthems - "Okie from Muskogee" and "Fightin' Side of Me" - which crossed over to the pop charts where they were both revered and reviled. His redneck bonafides gained Haggard entrance to the White House on two separate occasions. In 1974 he performed at Pat Nixon's birthday party - where President Nixon famously quipped, "I'll bet there aren't any Jews in Muskogee either." In the 1980's Haggard was invited back to the White House to perform for the Reagans.
The famed country music star was an ex-convict who served time for burglary at California's San Quentin prison. He was incarcerated in San Quentin in 1958 at a time when Johnny Cash performed a concert there for the inmates, an occurrence that helped Haggard set some direction for his life after parole. California Governor Ronald Reagan pardoned Haggard for all past crimes in 1972. (Haggard had an arrest record going back to the age of eleven when his mother turned him over to authorities for being "incorrigible.") Mama tried.
In later years Merle Haggard abandoned some of his hard conservative orthodoxy and became part of the country music "outlaw" movement joining the likes of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams, Jr. By that time people undoubtedly were smoking marijuana in Muskogee - and lots of it!
Some of Merle Haggard's more famous songs, many of which he wrote himself, include: "Mama Tried," "Today I Started Loving You Again," "Silver Wings," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "If We Make It Through December," "Sing Me Back Home," "Hungry Eyes," and "Pancho and Lefty" - a duet with Willie Nelson.
About twenty-five years ago Merle Haggard was playing a regular gig in Branson. He and Willie Nelson shared a theatre on the strip where Merle did afternoon shows and Willie gave the evening performances. Tim and Molly (my two youngest) and I went to one of Willie's shows, but we didn't make it to see Merle. That was our loss.
Somewhere out on the Internet is a list of famous people who died on their birthdays - I've seen it - and Merle Haggard's name can now be added to that list. The last I heard they weren't holding regular meetings.
A true American legend has left the stage. Rest in peace, sir - and give our love to Mama.