Country music legend Merle Haggard, best known for recording 38 number one hits like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Mama Tried,” passed away Wednesday, April 6, at the age of 79 after battling multiple health problems, including pneumonia and lung cancer.
Often known as the “Poet of the Common Man,” Haggard’s death comes just months after the release of his final album Django and Jimmie that he recorded with fellow music icon Willie Nelson. His death is devastating to music lovers everywhere, especially those who value the classic sound of traditional country music that Haggard was instrumental in pioneering.
Haggard’s career took hold in the early 1960s. He was first noticed for his musical abilities at San Quentin Prison where he played in the prison band while serving a sentence for burglary and an attempted escape from jail. It is often noted that Haggard was in the audience at San Quentin Prison in 1958 when Johnny Cash famously performed “Folsom Prison Blues” for the convicts and prison staff.
It was Haggard’s participation in the prison band that saved him from a life of incarceration and led to the long and successful career that followed. He was pardoned for all of his crimes in 1972 by the then Governor of California Ronald Regan. Haggard’s experiences as a prison inmate, while not the most admirable aspect of his life, did inspire countless songs, including “Sing Me Back Home” and “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”
Haggard’s music was also inspired by his troublesome life. Haggard’s parents left Muskogee, Oklahoma, for California during the Great Depression after living through the beginnings of the Dust Bowl, which inspired the lyrics of one of Haggard’s most beloved songs “Okie from Muskogee.”
Another famous hit was “Hobo Bill.” Haggard was notorious for living in converted boxcars as he bounced between jails. He was able to draw from his experiences for the lyrics in this song as well. Like most popular country music, Haggard’s songs gave a voice to those who struggle in life, which is one of the many reasons his music was so popular.
Haggard won nearly every award available to country artists. He was a two time Grammy Award winner and received multiple awards from the Academy of Country Music and Country Music Association. Most notably, Haggard was honored along side Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney at the Kennedy Center in 2010, and he was one of only five artists to ever receive the ACM Triple-Crown Award.
When Haggard was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, the organization released a statement, “Merle Haggard stands, with the arguable exception of Hank Williams, as the single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history.”
Collegian Reporter Randi Mattox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @randimattox.