One of the legends of country music has died. Rolling Stone reports that Merle Haggard, known for songs including “Mama Tried,” “Hungry Eyes” and his signature song, “Okie From Muskogee,” died today, April 6, on his 79th birthday.
“In American and country music, few artists loomed larger,” Rolling Stone reports. “Haggard’s career spanned 38 Number One country hits, and his rough, hard-edged style influenced country and rock & roll artists from Waylon Jennings and Gram Parsons to Jamey Johnson and Eric Church. As a songwriter, Willie Nelson called him ‘one of the best.'”
Haggard had been in poor health for a while, and was hospitalized a little more than a month ago, as we reported in March. He had been been forced to cancel concerts, and was being treated for a recurring bout of double pneumonia. He reportedly died at his home in Palo Cedro, Calif., near Redding.
A native of the Bakersfield, Calif., area, Haggard drew on his own life for ballads often focusing on drinking and spending time in jail. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard helped create what came to be known as the Bakersfield sound, a branch of country music that grew out of the honky tonks and made a statement against the slick production associated with Nashville.
Haggard also became widely associated with outlaw country, along with other transformative figures including Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
In his later years Haggard continued to tour extensively, including a number of gigs opening for Bob Dylan. Rolling Stone quotes Dylan saying in 2009: “Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets. Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the Fifties, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock & roll star, one of the best.”
Here’s a clip of Haggard performing “Sing Me Back Home” in 2009 …