A Rockapaedia Obituary
Merle Haggard died on 6th April 2016, his Seventy-Ninth birthday. He died of complications from pneumonia at his home in Palo Cedro, Shasta County, California, U.S.A. Merle was buried in a private funeral at his ranch.
In December 2015, Merle had been treated at an undisclosed hospital in California for pneumonia. He survived that time but postponed several concerts because of it. In March 2016, Merle was once again hospitalized with ongoing double pneumonia.
Merle Haggard was married five times, first to Leona Hobbs from 1956 to 1964. They had four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli, and Noel.
Shortly after divorcing Hobbs, in 1965, he married singer Bonnie Owens. Merle Haggard credited her with helping him make his big break as a country artist. He shared the writing credit with Owens for his hit 'Today I Started Loving You Again' and acknowledged, including on stage, that the song was about a sudden burst of special feelings he experienced for her while they were touring together. She also helped care for Merle Haggard's children from his first marriage, and was the maid of honor for Merle Haggard's third marriage. Merle Haggard and Owens divorced in 1978, but remained close friends as Owens continued as his backing vocalist until her death in 2006.
In 1978, Merle Haggard married Leona Williams. In 1983, they divorced. In 1985 Merle Haggard married Debbie Parret; they divorced in 1991. He married his fifth wife, Theresa Ann Lane, on September 11, 1993. They had two children, Jenessa and Ben.
Merle Haggard's parents, Flossie and James Haggard moved to California from their home in Checotah, Oklahoma, during the Great Depression, after their barn burned in 1934.
They settled with their two elder children, Lowell and Lillian, in an apartment in Bakersfield, while James started working for the Santa Fe Railroad. A woman who owned a boxcar placed in Oildale, a nearby town, asked Merle Haggard's father about the possibility of converting it into a house. He remodeled the boxcar, and soon after moved in, also purchasing the lot, where Merle Haggard was born on 6th April 1937.
His father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945, an event that deeply affected Merle Haggard during his childhood and the rest of his life. To support the family, his mother worked as a bookkeeper. At aged twelve his brother, Lowell, gave Merle his used guitar. Merle learned to play alone, with the records he had at home, influenced by Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, and Hank Williams. As his mother was absent due to work, Merle Haggard became progressively rebellious. His mother sent him for a weekend to a juvenile detention center to change his attitude, but it worsened.
Merle Haggard committed a number of minor offenses, such as thefts and writing bad checks. He was sent to a juvenile detention center for shoplifting in 1950. When he was fourteen, Merle Haggard ran away to Texas with his friend Bob Teague. He rode freight trains and hitchhiked throughout the state. When he returned the same year, he and his friend were arrested for robbery. Merle Haggard and Teague were released when the real robbers were found. Merle Haggard was later sent to the juvenile detention center, from which he and his friend escaped again to Modesto, California. Merle worked a series of laborer jobs, including driving a potato truck, being a short order cook, a hay pitcher, and an oil well shooter. His debut performance was with BobTeague in a Modesto bar named "Fun Center", being paid five dollars, with free beer.
Merle returned to Bakersfield in 1951, and was again arrested for truancy and petty larceny and sent to a juvenile detention center. After another escape, he was sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security installation. He was released fifteen months later, but was sent back after beating a local boy during a burglary attempt. After his release, Merle Haggard and Bob Teague saw Lefty Frizzell in concert. After hearing Merle Haggard sing along to his songs backstage, Frizzell refused to sing unless Merle Haggard would be allowed to sing first. He sang songs that were well received by the audience. Because of this positive reception, Merle Haggard decided to pursue a career in music. While working as a farmhand or in oil fields, he played in nightclubs.
Married and plagued by financial issues, Merle was arrested in 1957 shortly after he tried to rob a Bakersfield roadhouse. He was sent to Bakersfield Jail and after an escape attempt, was transferred to San Quentin Prison in February 1958. While in prison, Merle Haggard learned that his wife was expecting another man's child, which pressed him psychologically.
While at San Quentin, Merle Haggard started a gambling and brewing racket with his cellmate. After he was caught drunk, he was sent for a week to solitary confinement where he encountered Caryl Chessman, an author and death-row inmate. Meanwhile, "Rabbit" had successfully escaped, only to shoot a police officer and be returned to San Quentin for execution. Chessman's predicament, along with the execution of "Rabbit," inspired Merle Haggard to change his life. He soon earned a high school equivalency diploma and kept a steady job in the prison's textile plant. He also played for the prison's country music band, attributing a performance by Johnny Cash at the prison on New Year's Day 1959 as his main inspiration to join it. Merle was released from San Quentin on parole in 1960.
In 1972, after Merle Haggard had become an established country music star, then-California governor Ronald Reagan granted Merle Haggard a full and unconditional pardon for his past crimes.
Upon his release from San Quentin in 1960, Merle Haggard had started digging ditches for his brother's electrical contracting company. Soon after he was performing again, and later began recording with Tally Records. The Bakersfield sound was developing in the area as a reaction against the overproduced Nashville sound. Merle Haggard's first record for Tally was "Singing My Heart Out" backed by "Skid Row"; it was not a success, and only two hundred copies were pressed. In 1962, Merle Haggard was performing at a Wynn Stewart show in Las Vegas and heard Wynn's "Sing a Sad Song." He asked for permission to record it, and the resulting single was a national hit in 1964. The following year, he had his first national top-10 record with "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," written by Liz Anderson, mother of country singer Lynn Anderson, and his career was kick-started. Merle Haggard recalls having been talked into visiting Anderson—a woman he did not know—at her house to hear her sing some songs she had written.
In 1967, Merle Haggard recorded "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive with The Strangers," also written by Liz Anderson with her husband Casey Anderson, which became his first number-one single. When the Andersons presented the song to Merle Haggard, they were unaware of his prison stretch.
The 1967 album Branded Man with The Strangers kicked off an artistically and commercially successful run for Merle Haggard. His new recordings showcased his band The Strangers, specifically Roy Nichols's Telecaster, Ralph Mooney's steel guitar, and the harmony vocals provided by Bonnie Owens.
Bonnie Owens recorded six solo albums on Capitol between 1965 and 1970 but she became mainly known for her background harmonies on Merle Haggard hits such as "Sing Me Back Home" and "Branded Man."
Towards the end of the decade, Merle Haggard composed several number-one hits, including "Mama Tried," "The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde," "Hungry Eyes," and "Sing Me Back Home." In 1969, Merle Haggard's first tribute LP Same Train, Different Time: A Tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, was also released to acclaim.
Merle Haggard's songs attracted attention from outside the country field. The Everly Brothers covered both "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried" on their 1968 country-rock album Roots. The following year, Merle Haggard's songs were performed or recorded by a variety of artists, including the Gram Parsons incarnation of the Byrds, who performed "Sing Me Back Home" on the Grand Ole Opry and recorded "Life in Prison" for their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo; singer-activist Joan Baez, who covered "Sing Me Back Home" and "Mama Tried"; crooner Dean Martin, who recorded "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" for his album of the same name; and the Grateful Dead, whose live cover of "Mama Tried" became a staple in their repertoire until the band's end in 1995.
Merle Haggard's 1970 LP A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, dedicated to Bob Wills, helped spark a permanent revival and expanded the audience for western swing. By this point, Merle Haggard was one of the most famous country singers in the world, having enjoyed an immensely successful artistic and commercial run with Capitol, accumulating twenty-four number-one country singles since 1966.
In 1972, Let Me Tell You about A Song, the first TV special starring Merle Haggard, was nationally syndicated by Capital Cities TV Productions. It was a semi-autobiographical musical profile of Merle Haggard, akin to the contemporary Behind The Music, produced and directed by Michael Davis. The 1973 recession anthem, "If We Make It Through December," furthered Merle Haggard's status as a champion of the working class. "If We Make It Through December" turned out to be Merle Haggard and The Strangers last crossover pop hit.
Merle Haggard appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in May 1974. He also wrote and performed the theme song to the television series Movin' On, which in 1975 gave him and The Strangers another number-one country hit. During the early to mid-1970s, Merle Haggard and The Strangers country chart domination continued with songs such as "Someday We'll Look Back," "Grandma Harp," "Always Wanting You," and "The Roots of My Raising." Between 1973 and 1976, he and The Strangers scored nine consecutive number-one country hits. In 1977, Merle switched to MCA Records and began exploring the themes of depression, alcoholism, and middle age on albums such as Serving 190 Proof and The Way I Am. Merle Haggard sang a duet cover of Billy Burnette's "What's A Little Love Between Friends" with Lynda Carter in her 1980 television music special, Lynda Carter: Encore! He also scored a number-one hit in 1980 with "Bar Room Buddies," a duet with actor Clint Eastwood that appeared on the Bronco Billy soundtrack.
Between 1981 and 1985, Merle Haggard scored 12 more top-10 country hits, with nine of them reaching number one, including "My Favorite Memory," "Going Where the Lonely Go," "Someday When Things Are Good," and "Natural High." In addition, Merle Haggard recorded two chart-topping duets with George Jones—"Yesterdays' Wine" in 1982—and with Willie Nelson—"Pancho and Lefty" in 1983. Nelson believed the 1983 Academy Award-winning film Tender Mercies, about the life of fictional singer Mac Sledge, was based on the life of Merle Merle Haggard. Actor Robert Duvall and other filmmakers denied this and claimed the character was based on nobody in particular. Duvall, however, said he was a big fan of Merle Haggard.
In 1983, Merle Haggard and his third wife Leona Williams divorced after five stormy years of marriage. The split served as a license to party for Merle Haggard, who spent much of the next decade becoming mired in alcohol and drug problems. Merle Haggard has stated that he was in his own mid-life crisis, or "male menopause," around this time.
Merle Haggard was hampered by financial woes well into the 1990s, as his presence on the charts diminished in favor of newer country singers, such as George Strait and Randy Travis. Merle Haggard's last number-one hit was "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star" from his smash album Chill Factor in 1988.
In 1989, Merle Haggard recorded a song, "Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn," in response to the Supreme Court's decision not to allow banning flag burning, considering it to be "speech" and therefore protected under the First Amendment. After CBS Records Nashville avoided releasing the song, Merle Haggard bought his way out of the contract and signed with Curb Records, which was willing to release the song. Merle Haggard commented about the situation, "I've never been a guy that can do what people told me.... It's always been my nature to fight the system."
In October 2005, Merle Haggard released his album Chicago Wind to mostly positive reviews. The album contained an anti-Iraq war song titled "America First," in which he laments the nation's economy and faltering infrastructure, applauds its soldiers, and sings, "Let's get out of Iraq, and get back on track." This follows from his 2003 release "Merle Haggard Like Never Before" in which he includes a song, "That's The News." Merle Haggard released a bluegrass album, The Bluegrass Sessions, in October 2007.
In 2008, Merle Haggard was going to perform at Riverfest in Little Rock, Arkansas, but the concert was canceled because he was ailing, and three other concerts were cancelled, as well. However, he was back on the road in June and successfully completed a tour that ended on October 19th 2008.
In April 2010, Merle Haggard released a new album, I Am What I Am, to strong reviews.