2016-04-08 / National News

Country icon Merle Haggard, champion of the underdog, dies

KRISTIN M. HALL
Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Country giant Merle Haggard, who rose from poverty and prison to international fame through his songs about outlaws, underdogs and an abiding sense of national pride in such hits as “Okie From Muskogee” and “Sing Me Back Home,” died Wednesday at 79, on his birthday.

Haggard’s manager, Frank Mull, said the country icon died in Palo Cedro, California, of pneumonia that he had been battling for months. His publicist, Tresa Redburn, said no official cause of death has been determined.

He had kept up an ambitious touring schedule, but the pneumonia in both lungs had forced him to cancel several shows this year. Mull said his family was by his side when he died at home and they were planning a funeral for Saturday at his home.

A masterful guitarist, fiddler and songwriter as well as singer, the Country Music Hall of Famer with the firm, direct baritone recorded for more than 40 years, releasing dozens of albums and No. 1 hits.

“He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him,” said Willie Nelson, his longtime friend, in a statement. Tanya Tucker recalled fondly the time they ate bologna sandwiches by the river: “I just can’t imagine a world without Merle. It’s so hard to accept, but I’ll continue honoring him on stage just as I do during every show.”

Haggard — along with fellow California country star Buck Owens — was a founder of the twangy Bakersfield Sound, a direct contrast to the smooth, string-laden country records popular in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1960s.

His music was rough yet sensitive, reflecting on childhood, marriage and daily struggles, telling stories of shame and redemption, or just putting his foot down in “The Fightin’ Side of Me” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”

Few faces in country were as recognizable as Haggard’s, with its wary, sideways glance and chiseled, haunted features that seemed to bear every scar from his past.

General audiences knew him best for “Okie From Muskogee,” a patriotic anthem released in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War that quickly became a cultural touchstone for its antihippie lyrics proclaiming “we don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street; we like living right and being free.”

In 1970, Haggard was named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association, and “Okie From Muskogee” won best album and single. The No. 1 hits “Mama Tried” and “Workin’ Man Blues” also broke onto the charts around that time, sealing his reputation as one of country’s defining voices. He picked up another CMA album of the year in 1972 for “Let Me Tell You About a Song.”

He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, the same year he won a Grammy for best male country vocal performance in “That’s the Way Love Goes.”

His childhood was out of a John Steinbeck novel; his family migrated from Oklahoma to California and lived as outsiders in their adopted state. Born in 1937 near Bakersfield, Haggard was raised in a converted railway boxcar, the only dwelling his parents could afford. When Haggard was 9, his beloved father suddenly fell ill and died, leaving Haggard with lasting grief. He turned to petty crime and spent several years in and out of institutions.

He served three years in San Quentin as inmate 845200 for burglarizing a cafe during a drunken spree. It was during that stint he saw Johnny Cash play, and he returned to Bakersfield at age 22 in 1960 ready to write music. Singer-bandleader Wynn Stewart was an early patron, hiring Haggard to play bass in his group. Haggard’s first hit was a cover of Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song” and by 1966 he had been voted most promising vocalist by the Academy of Country and Western Music.

Fame brought him unexpected respectability. His criminal record was erased by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who pardoned him in 1972, and he was invited by President Richard Nixon to sing at the White House. Officials in Kern County, where he spent his boyhood years, have since honored his legacy by renaming a portion of road Merle Haggard Drive.

Haggard was active as ever in his 70s, and received strong reviews for his 2010 album “I Am What I Am.” He lived his last years outside Redding with his fifth wife, Theresa Lane. Haggard previously was married to singer Leona Williams, and to country crooner Bonnie Owens, the former wife of Buck Owens, with whom he toured for nearly a decade. He is survived by six children, Marty, Dana, Kelli, Noel, Jenessa and Ben, and his sister Lillian Haggard Rea.

When doctors found a spot on his lung in 2008, Haggard announced he didn’t plan to seek treatment. But after friends and family members convinced him otherwise, he had a tumor removed and vowed to keep performing.

“When I quit doing them (tours), the next big event is the funeral,” he told the AP in a 1990 interview. “They keep me young.”

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