Jill Leovy Contact Reporter
April 6, 2016
Through it all, the songs still flowed.
Over decades of trouble, fame, and more trouble, Merle Haggard never stopped making up songs. The country-music star seemed afflicted with a song-writing compulsion, much as Woody Guthrie was.
He penned his first ballads as a child. By later life, he claimed to have written 10,000 of them.
He composed wherever he went, all day long. He was inspired by snippets of conversation, flashes of memory. He drew lyrics from a flower, from the view out a bus window.
He once wrote an entire song during the walk from his limousine to the stage.
Even after Haggard's fame dimmed, and audiences shrank, he kept writing, kept singing. He said “the best songs feel like they've always been here.” He seemed to never tire of unearthing them.
The musician, who sang of his law-breaking Bakersfield youth and whose natural, storytelling lyrics won him a vast following — more than 100 of his songs made the Billboard charts — died Wednesday — his birthday — at his home near Redding. He was 79.
Haggard's spokeswoman Tresa Redburn said no cause of death had been determined.
Haggard had been in and out of the hospital in recent months battling pneumonia. His son Ben Haggard, a guitarist in his father's band, said in a statement that Haggard had died surrounded by family and friends. A week ago, he “had told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn't wrong,” the statement said.
A Central Valley native and former San Quentin inmate, Haggard was considered one of the leading artists of Bakersfield's honky-tonk scene and his stature in the country-music pantheon ranks with that of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
His biggest years stretched from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, during which he once had nine consecutive country No. 1 singles. But Haggard's inborn, relentless creativity never flagged.
He owed some of his fame to conservative anthems, including the combative 1969 release “Okie from Muskogee” which seemed to mock San Francisco's anti-war hippies.
But patriotic pride and political songs made up only a portion of the vast and diverse Haggard portfolio, which included autobiographical laments, odes to working men and women, drinking songs and love songs. A Times critic described his ballads as “caked with the dust of hard-won experiences.”
In life Haggard was by no means the clean-cut square of the Muskogee song, about which he expressed mixed feelings (though after a hiatus, he eventually resumed singing it).
He had grown up a troublemaker — a teenage runaway who rode the rails and turned petty criminal. Sent to prison after a botched burglary attempt, he was among the inmates who watched Cash perform at San Quentin in 1958.
The experience famously helped turn his life around. But it didn't exactly straighten him out. Drugs, divorce and bankruptcy dogged his path, long after success came his way.
He was private, cryptic, and, long after his train-hopping days, he was a fanatic for model trains. Neither his songs nor views were predictable. He wrote, for example, “Irma Jackson,” an anti-racist protest song about a love affair between a white man and black woman, the same year he wrote “Okie from Muskogee.” (Capitol Records delayed the release of “Irma Jackson.”)
Many of his songs were blues-tinged and desolate. Often, they evoked the landscapes of California, his lifelong home. He sang of “Tulare Dust” and the Kern River.
“There's the south San Joaquin where the seeds of the Dust Bowl are found / And there's a place called Mt. Whitney from where the mighty Kern River comes down” is a typical Haggard lyric, “so simple it is hard to see the craft involved,” Times critic Robert Hilburn wrote.
Simplicity was his creed, Haggard told Hilburn in a 2003 interview. “You've got to remember songs are meant to be sung,” he said. “You are not writing poetry.”
Haggard's scores of plain, rough-livin' character songs made him a critics' choice for one of the leading songwriters of his generation; Hilburn once claimed only Willie Nelson rivaled him among living songwriters in the country tradition.
But Haggard was also famous for his rich baritone singing voice. The voice dipped, broke and warbled with despair. It gave vocal form to the electric Fender-guitar twanginess of what came to be known as the “Bakersfield Sound” — that made-in-California genre calculated to cut through the noisy din of Bakersfield bars.
Haggard took singing very seriously. He spoke as a man seeking to master difficult maneuvers. He recounted efforts to hone his voice to approach the authenticity and restless inflection of his idol, country singer Lefty Frizzell.
Eventually, his style would prove so influential that the Haggard sound became a standard country sound. Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Mark Chesnutt and Clint Black are just a few of the artists whose style recalls Haggard's.
Despite this, Haggard in late middle age struggled as new waves of country-pop passed him by.
He lamented the absence of seriousness in this music, and condemned what he saw as the “bubble-gum side.”
To him, country music remained what it had ever been: “An art form,” he called it.
Merle Ronald Haggard was born April 6, 1937, in Oildale, near Bakersfield, the youngest of three children of James Frances and Flossie Mae Haggard. His parents were Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma who set up house in a converted boxcar. But Haggard fared better than many fellow migrants because his father had regular work with the railroads.
Haggard described his mother as socially ambitious. His early life contains a telling hint of middle-class aspiration: He took violin lessons as a child. Later, he would play an able fiddle.
Otherwise, young Haggard claimed that he was not encouraged in music. He had always composed, he said. He described his childhood self staring out of classroom windows, making up songs. Haggard recalled an uncle telling his mother, “if you want that boy to amount to anything, you better take that guitar out of his hands.”
After his father died suddenly when he was 9, Haggard ran away. He jumped on freight cars, and spent time in a home for delinquent boys. By 13, he was singing in bars. By 17, he had married a waitress, Leona Hobbs. But he was in jail for auto theft at the birth of their child, the first of four.
Then Haggard broke into a bar, wound up in jail and tried to escape, and in 1958 was sentenced to six to 15 years in San Quentin, where Cash's performance prompted him to form a prison band.
This real-life narrative would become a classic trope of country music. “Mama Tried,” considered by some critics to be Haggard's greatest song, is a fairly straight autobiographical account of his road to San Quentin.
Its indelible chorus — “I turned 21 in prison doin' life without parole” — exaggerates his sentence; paroled after less than three years, Haggard was able to unfurl his musical gifts under state supervision.
He worked briefly as a ditch digger and pursued gigs in Bakersfield bars, where a new country-rockabilly music scene was gaining popularity. Its high priest was Haggard's predecessor and early collaborator Buck Owens, whose ex-wife, singer Bonnie Owens, Haggard would marry after divorcing Leona.
Haggard joined Wynn Stewart's band. The popularity of his rendition of Stewart's “Sing a Sad Song” (1963) was a premonition of future success.
Haggard was an ardent fan of Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. He had talent. He had hawkeyed good looks. But he also had, like them, a strong sense of craft. Over the next few years, he would produce a startling string of hits — 13 Billboard country Top 10 singles by the end of the decade.
These songs established his stardom. Several became virtual country standards. “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried,” “Okie from Muskogee,” and “Workin' Man Blues” were all produced from 1966 to 1969.
“Okie's” overt right-wing political message, delivered at the height of Vietnam War protests — and “The Fightin' Side of Me,” a subsequent, even angrier swipe at the anti-war movement — made Haggard a darling of conservatives. Richard Nixon sent him a congratulatory letter; then California Gov. Ronald Reagan pardoned him and segregationist George Wallace sought his endorsement for president.
Though sincere in his conservative views, Haggard was uncomfortable with his political role. He referred to himself as “dumb as a rock” for writing “Okie,” though he defended the emotions behind it.
Much later, he would lament the Vietnam-era's stark political divide, and the legacy of bitterness he said it left.
Meanwhile, the bouncy “Okie” song went on to have life of its own. It was covered by, among others, left-populist folk singer Phil Ochs, who (intended irony aside) gave it surprising soulful depths.
By the '70s, the Bakersfield Sound had tilted the country music industry west, away from Nashville. Times writer Peter H. King summed up the phenomenon with three nouns: “Buck and Merle and Bakersfield.”
Haggard produced hits steadily over the next two decades; 38 of his songs would be Billboard country No. 1 singles. Reiterating the underdog themes of his early music in the 1970s, he produced the recession ballad “If We Make It Through December” in 1973. He joined forces with Nelson to sing “Pancho and Lefty” in 1983, and won a Grammy in 1984 for “That's the Way Love Goes.” He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
He expressed gratitude for the favorable turn of his life after prison. But his living of it remained jagged. The marriage with Bonnie Owens didn't last, and neither did two subsequent marriages. Haggard drank — and wrote songs about it. The 1980 hit, “I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink” was one of them. He made tens of millions of dollars, and lost them. He had trouble with the IRS, and declared bankruptcy in 1993, the same year he married his fifth wife, Theresa Lane.
He stuck to a grueling touring schedule. He was driven perhaps by money woes but also by demons. By his own admission, he had trouble settling down. His friends worried about him.
He aged and country music changed. The hits ebbed. But the songs still flowed. Haggard had two more children with Lane, who lived with him at a 168-acre ranch outside Redding in the Lake Shasta area.
In 2000, he released the album “If I Could Only Fly” to critical praise.
In 2002, he published the second of two autobiographies, and released a stinging song about the Iraq war during President George W. Bush's term. This song was a contrast to the Main Street-pride spirit of “Okie.”
Haggard said he did not vote for President Obama, but he spoke glowingly of his election — and, of course, wrote a song about it. He also defended Obama against conservative attacks and called the president's right-wing critics “almost criminal.”
He was, by then, “one of the last damn cowboys left,” a San Francisco Chronicle critic declared. In 2008, Haggard had part of a lung removed, and soon resumed touring.
He had once called his life “a 35-year bus ride.” But the train-hopping Bakersfield desperado had underestimated.
Six decades after his prison days, he was still traveling and performing every few days.