Country music's outlaw hero

Merle Haggard performing at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 2014.
Merle Haggard performing at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in 2014.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK• Merle Haggard, one of the most successful singers in the history of country music, whose songs about his scuffling early life and his time in prison made him the closest thing that the genre had to a real-life outlaw hero, died at his ranch in Northern California on Wednesday, his 79th birthday.

His death was confirmed by his agent, Lance Roberts. Haggard had recently cancelled several concerts, saying he had double pneumonia.

Few country artists have been as popular and widely admired as Haggard, a ruggedly handsome performer who strode onto a stage, guitar in hand, as a poet of the common man. Thirty-eight of his singles, including Workin' Man Blues and the 1973 recession-era lament If We Make It Through December, reached No. 1 on the Billboard country chart from 1966 to 1987. Seven of his singles crossed over to the pop charts.

He had an immense influence on other performers - not just other country singers but also 1960s rock bands such as The Byrds, as well as acts such as Elvis Costello. About 400 artists have released versions of his 1968 hit Today I Started Loving You Again.

Unlike his friend Johnny Cash, Haggard did not merely visit San Quentin State Prison in California to perform for the inmates. Convicted of burglary in 1957, he served nearly three years there and spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement.

He went on to write Mama Tried, Branded Man and several other candid songs about his incarceration, all of them sung in a supple baritone suffused with dignity and regret. Many of his other recordings championed the struggles of the working class from which he rose.

Defying the conventions of the Nashville musical establishment, Haggard was an architect of the twangy Bakersfield sound, a guitar-driven blend of blues, jazz, pop and honky-tonk that traced its roots to Bakersfield, California. In his case, the sound defined a body of work as indelible as that of any country singer since Hank Williams.

Much of Haggard's cross-genre appeal was attributable to his versatile band, in which he sometimes played the fiddle and lead guitar. But a great deal of it was also because of the pliancy of his singing voice, a deeply expressive instrument that lent itself to a variety of tempos, arrangements and emotions. He was as convincing singing about drinking and heartbreak as he was performing sentimental and devotional numbers, topical material and novelties.

Merle Ronald Haggard was born on April 6, 1937, in Oildale, California. His first years were spent in the abandoned boxcar that his father, James, a railroad carpenter, had converted into a home for his family. James died of a stroke in 1946, after which Haggard's mother, the former Flossie Mae Harp, a strict member of the ultra-conservative Church of Christ, took a bookkeeping job to provide for her three children.

Chafing against his mother's yoke, young Merle got into trouble for breaking and entering, shoplifting and passing bad cheques. There were repeated trips to reform school and escapes from it. Rebellion and escape, themes steeped more in rock 'n' roll than in country music, would figure prominently in Haggard's songwriting.

He also appeared in several movies, including the 1980 Clint Eastwood film Bronco Billy. Bar Room Buddies, a duet with Eastwood from the film's soundtrack, became a No. 1 country hit.

His survivors include a sister, Lillian; his fifth wife, Theresa Ann Lane; their children, Jenessa and Ben, the lead guitarist in Merle's band the Strangers; and four children from his first marriage, daughters Dana and Kelli and sons Marty and Noel, both of whom are performers.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2016, with the headline 'Country music's outlaw hero'. Subscribe