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MERLE HAGGARD,
1937-2016

Merle Haggard, a country music renegade who defined the rough-edged West Coast sound of the 1960s with songs about hardened lives, heavy drinking and broken dreams, died 4/6 on his 79th birthday at his home near Redding, Calif.

Holly Gleason's remembrance of the great man is essential reading; don't miss it.

Once again, fans have mourned the loss by downloading the music: there are three Haggard collections in the iTunes Top 10 on Thursday morning.

Haggard suffered a string of health struggles and December was hospitalized with double pneumonia, which returned in late January, forcing the cancellation of concert performances this year.

From the honky-tonks of his hometown Bakersfield, Haggard’s Fender-guitar-driven twang provided a counterpoint to the slick country music coming out of Nashville, singing stories of hardship, bad luck and even patriotism that earned a place in the pantheon that includes Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

Influenced by Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, his music would influence country musicians such as Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan and Garth Brooks and rock acts The Byrds, Elvis Costello and Sheryl Crow. Jason Isbell tweeted “Merle Haggard was the best country songwriter there ever was.”

After a troubled childhood led to multiple trips to jail, Haggard was sent to San Quentin Prison for a botched burglary when he was 20 where he began to take music seriously and was in the audience for Cash’s famous 1958 performance at the penitentiary.

Once out of prison, he worked as a ditch digger and in Bakersfield’s clubs, aligning himself with the already established Buck Owens. 

He made a name for himself in Bakersfield, playing clubs and recording his compositions  for Capitol Records, among them  “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Okie From Muskogee” and “Mama Tried.” Haggard’s first release for Capitol, 1965’s Strangers, hit #9 on the country chart and he then went on a 21-year run in which he registered 40 #1 country singles and other 38  singles in the country Top 10.

A native of California’s Central Valley, he also sang of the state’s rural areas—and the hard lives there—in songs such as “Tulare Dust” and “Kern River.”

A two-time Grammy winner, Recording Academy CEO/President Neil Portnow said “Merle’s massive success was rooted in his masterful ability to celebrate the outlaws and the underdogs. Merle’s extraordinary talent resulted in more than 30 No. 1 country hits and his remarkable performances will forever live on and inspire music creators worldwide.”

“We've lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time," Dolly Parton shared. "His heart was as tender as his love ballads. I loved him like a brother. Rest easy, Merle.”

Haggard was honored as BMI Icon in 1996, and recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

Haggard's last recording, Django and Jimmie with Willie Nelson, was released by Sony Legacy last year (see review.)

 

 

 

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