Categories: Features

Scoop: Mighty Merle played honest country music

No one was quite like country great Merle Haggard.

The grizzled “Okie From Muskogee” who rose from poverty and prison to fame with songs about outlaws, underdogs and an abiding sense of national pride, died Wednesday after battling pneumonia in Palo Cedro on his 79th birthday, the Associated Press reported.

Tributes for the guitarist, fiddler, singer-songwriter and Country Music Hall of Famer — who in more than 40 years had numerous albums and hits — poured in from colleagues like Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Jr, and Tanya Tucker.

Haggard’s music was rough yet sensitive, reflecting on childhood, marriage and daily struggles. His most beloved songs included the prison ballad “Sing Me Back Home,” the tributes to his mother “Mama Tried” and “Hungry Eyes,” the romantic lament “Today I Started Loving You Again” and blue collar chronicles “If We Make It Through December” and “Workin’ Man Blues.”

“Okie From Muskogee,” an anthem released in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, became a cultural touchstone for conservatives with its anti-hippie lyrics. But in later years, Haggard backed Democrats, playing songs to support Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Recording tributes to influences such as pioneer Jimmy Rodgers and swing king Bob Wills, he resisted slick arrangements favored by some pop-country stars.

“I’ll tell you what the public likes more than anything,” he told the Boston Globe in 1999. “It’s the most rare commodity in the world — honesty.”

As a young man, he served time in San Quentin for burglarizing a cafe during a drunken spree, then returned to Bakersfield to make music. His first hit was a cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song”; he was a star by 1967.

Active as ever in his 70s, he lived his last years outside Redding with his fifth wife, Theresa Lane. He previously was married to singer Leona Williams, and to crooner Bonnie Owens, former wife of Buck Owens, with whom he toured. He is survived by six children.

When doctors found a spot on his lung in 2008, loved ones convinced him to seek treatment; he had a tumor removed and vowed to keep performing.

“When I quit doing them (tours), the next big event is the funeral,” he told the AP in a 1990 interview. “They keep me young.”

QUICK TAKES

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY

Actor Russell Crowe is 52. … Actor Jackie Chan is 62. … Singer Janis Ian is 65. … Singer-guitarist John Oates of Hall and Oates is 68 … Director Francis Ford Coppola is 77. … Gov. Jerry Brown is 78.

Associated Press
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