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Haggard, poet of common man, dies on his birthday

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Merle Haggard composed the soundtrack of a generation of displaced Okies, Arkies and Texans — the rootlessness, the poverty, the field work — but he did it with such towering artistry that the Oildale native, the son of a railroad man and God-fearing mother, belonged not just to Bakersfield but the world.

The poet of the common man died at 9:20 a.m. Wednesday — his 79th birthday — on his tour bus at his home near Redding surrounded by family, according to Fuzzy Owen, his manager of 54 years, who was with the singer when he died. The cause was pneumonia, which he’d been battling since December.

Haggard’s wife, Theresa, sent a hand-written note to The Californian expressing her sorrow.

“He was the best singer, songwriter and performer I’ve ever seen. Not only did he write the songs he sang, he was the music.

”I will miss him forever.“

Son Ben Haggard and other sources said Wednesday the singer had predicted he would die on his birthday. He’d asked to be taken out to the tour bus two or three days ago, Owen said. But it wasn’t unusual for the singer, who wrote so expressively about his lifelong wanderlust, to stay on the bus while at home.

“You'd have to be a musician to understand,” Owen said.

Recording artist and self-proclaimed “Bakersfield Sound disciple” Marty Stuart, a frequent collaborator and close friend of Haggard’s, was succinct when asked Wednesday to explain Haggard’s impact.

“Country music has lost the last true chief from that era,” he said. “I always thought there was Merle and then there was everybody else.”

The reaction in Bakersfield was shock even though many knew Haggard’s prognosis had been grim. Jim Shaw, bandleader for the late Buck Owens, met Haggard in early 1970 and recalled what his old boss — a mentor of Haggard’s — thought of the singer.

“When Buck Owens through the years was asked who was the best country music singer/songwriter, it was always Merle Haggard,” Shaw said. “There was no bigger fan of Merle Haggard than Buck Owens.” 

’I grew up here with intentions of escaping’

Haggard, famously schooled on train rails and in jail cells, became a songwriter and vocalist of astonishing power and skill, his gifts and blue-collar point-of-view earning the nickname poet of the common man. He chronicled love, loss, poverty and pride with a poignant and resonant urgency that belied his nominal job description of country music singer and placed him in the rarified company of such American giants as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and George Gershwin.

Haggard experienced both life’s darkest depths and headiest highs, from a stint in San Quentin State Prison, where he turned 21, to his 2010 recognition for lifetime achievement and “outstanding contribution to American culture” from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the most prestigious award in a long list of them that included three Grammys and dozens of country music industry honors.

He wrote and recorded some of country music’s most memorable and commercially successful songs, from “Okie From Muskogee” to  “Mama Tried” — recently selected by the Library of Congress to its National Recording Registry. Between 1966 and 1987, Haggard and his band recorded 38 songs that reached No. 1 on the Billboard country charts and another 33 that reached the top 10.

His songs have been recorded by artists as diverse as the Everly Brothers and Elvis Costello, and one song alone, “Today I Started Loving You Again,” has been recorded by more than 400 performers. 

Along the way, Haggard, his equally famous contemporary, Buck Owens, and other notable players like Red Simpson, Tommy Collins and Billy Mize forged a raw and raucous subgenre, what became known as the Bakersfield Sound, which in many ways was the antithesis of Nashville’s softer, more polished recordings, especially throughout the 1960s.

“Every time you hear a Telecaster guitar, you’re hearing the Bakersfield Sound,” Stuart told The Californian. “When you hear a two-part clear harmony, you’re hearing the Bakersfield Sound.”

Haggard would continue to live in Bakersfield throughout much of his commercial and artistic heyday, but he had a complicated relationship with the city he made famous and his real hometown of Oildale, just across the Kern River from Bakersfield.

In January 2015, he walked through, for the last time, the house where he grew up on Yosemite Drive, just yards from the railroad tracks that beckoned to him as a boy. A community group had begun a campaign to move and restore the home, a rail car converted by the singer’s father.

“I grew up here with intentions of escaping,” Haggard said then.

Love of music from the start

Merle Ronald Haggard was born at Kern General Hospital on April 6, 1937, and raised in Oildale. At that time, James Haggard, Merle’s father, had a $40-per-week job as a carpenter with the Santa Fe Railroad, allowing him to support his family better than most Depression-era fathers.

He had also acquired a refrigerated box car that had been moved off the rails and onto a lot 100 yards south of a heavily used main track line. This he fashioned into a sturdy, 1,200-square-foot home. 

Haggard demonstrated a love of music almost from the start. He has recalled pointing to the radio and asking for “stewed ham” — toddler talk, his mother eventually realized, for country singer Stuart Hamblen, whose 4 p.m. broadcast out of Los Angeles was a family favorite. 

But the idyll of childhood was shattered one night in June 1946 when Merle came home from a Wednesday night prayer meeting to find his father paralyzed from a stroke. James Haggard died the next day. It affected Merle, then 9, profoundly.

His mother, Flossie Haggard, was forced to take a $35-a-week job as a bookkeeper for a meat-packing company, and suddenly it was just mother and son, the older siblings, Lowell and Lillian Haggard Rea, having already set out on their own. 

Haggard attended Standard School in Oildale, Mountain View School in Lamont, and, very briefly, Bakersfield High School. He spent time in juvenile hall for truancy, and the experience probably did more harm than good, said his sister in a January 2015 interview with The Californian.

“A lot of his problems early on related to unresolved grief over our father's death,” Haggard Rea said. 

He committed a string of petty crimes and jailhouse escapes that eventually landed him in San Quentin State Prison for almost two years. That experience — along with a harrowing Huck Finn-meets-Harry Houdini youth, hopping freight trains, singing for beer, stealing cars, surviving automobile wrecks, botching burglaries, escaping from jails and, finally, serving time in one of California’s most notorious state prisons — was more than ample fodder for the story lines that would comprise his prolific body of work.

In November 1960, San Quentin officials gave Haggard $15 and a bus ticket home. He’d spent seven of his 23 years inside one institution or another, locked up.

’Best damn singin’ I ever heard’

Back in Bakersfield, Haggard landed a fill-in job at an Edison Highway joint called the Lucky Spot, where he met Charles “Fuzzy” Owen and Lewis Talley, cousins from Arkansas who fancied themselves recording executives-in-training.

“I was playing in the band at the Lucky Spot and it was on a Sunday,” Owen said Wednesday, recalling the day in 1962 he met Haggard. “We had two shifts and I played the first shift and then Merle come in with Jelly Sanders and bunch of ’em and played the last shift and I just happened to be hanging around and heard him sing. I told Merle, ’That was the best damn singin’ I ever heard,’ and he said, ’Why don't you sign me?’ And I said OK.”

Haggard’s brother-in-law, Bill Rea, gave the singer’s career a further assist by making a cold call to the producer of Cousin Herb’s “Trading Post,” a wildly popular daily Bakersfield television program. Haggard auditioned and was added to the show’s lineup two afternoons a week. Favorable fan mail started pouring in, and soon Haggard was performing five days a week on the “Trading Post.”

Tally Records, on the strength of Haggard’s January 1965 top-10 hit, “All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers,” sold his contract to Capitol Records’ A&R man, Ken Nelson. A long succession of hits followed.

Between 1966 and 1987, Haggard and the Strangers were a formidable combo that featured guitarists Roy Nichols and James Burton, Farmersville-bred steel guitarist Norm Hamlet, and cousins Owens and Talley.

In 1969, Haggard’s music took a sudden political turn with “Okie From Muskogee,” a phenomenon that forever changed Haggard’s career, thrusting him into the firestorm of the 1960s culture wars.

The song was regaled as the anthem of the silent majority in the difficult days of mounting casualties in Vietnam, anti-war demonstrations and counter-culture hippies. The song, recorded in Hollywood on July 17, 1969, made Haggard the hottest commodity in country music, and a tough ticket at venues across the country.

As a single, the song sold 264,000 copies the first year, and as an album (“Okie” was the title track) it surpassed 885,000 — making it one of the few country albums of the period to achieve gold-record status.

So great was Haggard’s association with all things conservative and traditional, George Wallace, through campaign intermediaries, asked Haggard to endorse him in his bid for re-election as governor of Alabama. Ernest Tubb had already signed on but Haggard refused.

A regular guest star on television variety shows hosted by Buck Owens, Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Barbara Mandrell and others, Haggard had become the darling of the American Right, a fact made even more evident when in 1970 California Gov. Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full and unconditional pardon for past crimes. Richard Nixon invited him to the White House in 1973 to sing at wife Pat’s staid birthday party.

Writing until the end

Though the Bakersfield Sound faded as a commercial force in the late 1970s, Haggard had already transcended the label and city, becoming the decade’s most commercially successful country performer.

In June, he and his longtime friend and colleague Willie Nelson released “Django and Jimmie,” which topped the country charts. His single from that album, “It’s All Going to Pot,” reached No. 48, his first charting single since 1999’s “That's the Way Love Goes,” a re-recording with Jewel.

Eager to keep the “Django and Jimmie” momentum going, Haggard was writing songs until the end and told Owen and Stuart he was planning to record what he’d written.

“A week ago Sunday he called me and he said, ’I just wrote me a good song,’” Stuart said. “It’s called ’My Final Escape.’”

Sturgill Simpson, one of the few newer country artists the icon professed to admire, said Haggard texted him six weeks ago with the lyrics to a new song he called “Hobo Cartoon.” Another person in Haggard’s close circle said Haggard texted him with lyrics he’d just written about the conflicted, emotional day he left Bakersfield for a new, permanent home in Shasta County.

“There was still so much more in him,” said Simpson, who opened for Haggard and Kris Kristofferson last winter on what proved to be Haggard’s final tour. “That’s what is so tragic here — he never stopped writing, never stopped creating.”

Even during fallow periods in his recording career, Haggard never left the road for long, eventually bringing his family on stage. His wife was a frequent backup singer and his youngest son, Ben, took up lead Telecaster guitar. The latest incarnation of his band, the Strangers, stayed remarkably busy. Haggard craved it.

“You people,” he once told an audience in Idaho, “are keeping me alive.”

Haggard comes home

In the early 1980s Haggard moved to Lake Shasta, 450 miles to the north, and locals saw him considerably less.

But then in 2008, a portion of Bakersfield’s 7th Standard Road, including the entrance to Kern County’s main commercial airport, was renamed Merle Haggard Drive and Haggard had a freeway offramp with his name on it, just four miles north of Buck Owens Boulevard. Bakersfield started seeing a lot more of Haggard after that. 

Haggard was married five times, first, in 1956, to Leona Hobbs (they had four children: Dana, Marty, Kelli, Noel); in 1965 to singer Bonnie Owens, former wife of Buck Owens; in 1978 to singer Leona Williams; and in 1985 to Debbie Parret. On Sept. 11, 1993, Haggard’s friend and former collaborator, Tommy Collins, a minister, performed his wedding to the former Theresa Ann Lane. The Haggards had two children, Jenessa and Ben.

A funeral service is scheduled for Saturday on Haggard’s property in Palo Cedro in Shasta County. The memorial will be private, according to Haggard’s attorney.

The performer, possibly thinking of his final act, left a detailed list of funeral instructions to guide his wife and family. He asked that two recordings by his idol Lefty Frizzell be played and he extended an invitation to friends and touring partners Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson to perform a song of their choosing. Marty Stuart and his wife, recording artist Connie Smith, will perform Haggard’s own “Silver Wings,” and Stuart will preside over the ceremony.

Among Haggard’s pallbearers are his youngest son, Ben, and nephew Jim Haggard. The document stated that Haggard wishes to be cremated.

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