Guitar Aficionado

Merle Haggard, Hit-Making Country Legend, Is Dead at 79

The country legend died on his birthday. No cause of death was given, but he had been ill in recent weeks.

PHOTO: Noel Vasquez | Getty Images

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By Christopher Scapelliti

Country legend Merle Haggard died today, April 6, on his 79th birthday.

No cause of death has been given. Haggard had been in failing health for some time and suffered double pneumonia, forcing him to cancel concert dates, including a pair of shows at the fabled Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

One of the most successful country singers of all time, Haggard recorded some 40 Number One country singles, including “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” and “Pancho and Lefty,” which he recorded with longtime friend Willie Nelson. His image as a rough-but-lovable outsider was genuine and imbued his songs with honesty that earned him admiration and much success. 

Contrary to the title of his 1969 hit “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard wasn’t from Oklahoma, though his parents were. He was born in 1937 after his family moved to Bakersfield, California, during the Depression. His father died in 1946, setting off a period in which Haggard frequently ran into trouble with the law. While spending time in juvenile facilities, he fell in love with music and began to learn to play the guitar.

At the age of 21, he was sent to San Quentin State Prison for attempted burglary. While there, he saw Johnny Cash perform for the inmates and upon leaving prison vowed to turn his life around.

While working as a laborer in the early Sixties, he spent evenings playing in the Bakersfield country music scene alongside Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart, who would themselves have successful music careers. Together, Haggard and his fellow Bakersfield musicians crafted the Bakersfield Sound, a twangier and harder-edged sound than what was coming out of Nashville, where string arrangements had become the norm on country records.

Haggard released his first single, “Skid Row,” in 1962, and scored a Top 20 hit with his second, “Sing Me a Sad Song.”

But it was “(My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers)”—a song he wrote with his future wife, Bonnie Owens—that got Haggard the attention of Capitol Records and led to greater success.

From the mid Sixties through the Eighties, Haggard racked up hit after hit, starting with “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” his first Number One.

It was 1969’s “Okie from Muskogee” that made Haggard a star, though. The song spent four weeks at the top spot on the country charts and crossed over to become a pop hit.

Haggard was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. Country music had changed by then, and while his sound was no longer in favor, Haggard found a welcome home at the punk label Anti-, where in 2000 he began making albums again. Among his efforts for the label were Kickin’ Out the Footlights…Again with country legend George Jones and Last of the Breed with Willie Nelson and Ray Price.

In his final years, Haggard suffered a range of health setbacks. In 2008 he was diagnosed with cancer but recovered after having surgery to remove part of his lung. He continued to perform regularly, though he was forced to cancel several shows in 2012 when illness sidelined him.

His last solo album, Working in Tennessee, was released in 2011, and last year saw him and Nelson reunited one last time for the collaborative album Django & Willie.

“Probably the happiest moments of my life have been on a stage,” Haggard told Patrick Carr of Country Music magazine in 1986. “The stage is a refuge for me, and it always has been. Over the years, I’ve climbed inside my music when things went wrong. I still do that. My music is where I really live.”