Merle’s story is one of legend. Rags to riches, prison to fame.
Merle Ronald Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016), was the outlaw-country icon who rose from a life of poverty and imprisonment to become one of America’s most influential artists.
Haggard was a singer, songwriter, guitarist and fiddler, who with his band the Strangers, helped create the Bakersfield Sound, which was characterized by the twang of Merle’s Fender Telecaster.
His childhood was troubled after the death of his father, and he was imprisoned several times. He turned his life around in San Quentin prison, earned a high school equivalency diploma, had a steady job in the prison’s textile plant, and played for the prison’s country music band. He attributed a 1958 performance by Johnny Cash at San Quentin as his main inspiration to join the band.
Merle was released from San Quentin on parole in 1960 and in 1972, after Haggard had become an established country music star, California governor Ronald Reagan granted him a full and unconditional pardon for his past crimes.
From the 1960s to the ‘80s, he had 38 number one hits on the US country charts. During the 1970s, he became aligned with the outlaw country music movement, and he continued to release successful albums through the 1990s and into the 2000s.
His commercial peak came in the late 1960s and ’70s, when he recorded some of the most heartfelt country music ever recorded, including “Branded Man,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Mama Tried,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and “Working Man’s Blues,” all of them painfully and honestly autobiographical.
In 2008, Haggard underwent surgery for lung cancer. Since then he had been hospitalized several times most recently, for pneumonia, which forced several concert postponements and cancellations in 2015.
He died from pneumonia at his ranch in Northern California on his 79th birthday on April 6, 2016.
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