Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Merle Haggard, working man's poet who hugely influenced American music, dies on 79th birthday

Haggard at the Opry, 2003 (Tennessean photo by Alan Poizner)
"Merle Haggard, the working man’s poet, an architect of the Bakersfield Sound, and a fiercely independent artist who influenced country music like few others, died Wednesday in California," Juli Thanki reports for The Tennessean. "He had just turned 79 years old, and had been in failing health for some time, leading to the diagnosis of double pneumonia and subsequent cancellation of several concert dates," two at the Ryman Auditorium, birthplace of the Grand Ole Opry.

"Haggard recorded 40 No. 1 country singles, and wrote some of the genre’s most revered classics, which have been recorded by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, The Byrds, Vince Gill, The Grateful Dead, and countless others," Thanki writes. His life, "which took him from a San Quentin prison cell to the Country Music Hall of Fame, was a truly American success story. . . . The Haggard family lived in a converted railroad car in Oildale, Calif., and while they were poor, they weren’t destitute like many of the Okies who went west."

Haggard had “a string of hits that are now an integral and beloved part of the country music canon, including "Sing Me Back Home," "Hungry Eyes," "Workin' Man Blues" and "Mama Tried." . . . Other songs that weren’t released as singles, including “Today I Started Loving You Again" (perhaps the Haggard song most-covered by other artists) and "Irma Jackson," about an interracial romance, display Mr. Haggard’s depth as an artist,” Thanki notes.

“The plainspoken power of his lyrics touched listeners across generations. In 1969, Mr. Haggard released a career-changing song, "Okie From Muskogee," about the values of small-town life. Co-written with Roy Edward Burns, it spent four weeks atop the country charts and crossed over to the pop charts as well. “Okie” was followed by another hard-nosed single, 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” Both became signature songs for Mr. Haggard, and after the songs were released, he rarely, if ever, left a stage without playing them.

“Throughout his career, Mr. Haggard wore his influences on his sleeve. He released tribute albums honoring two of his favorite artists, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, and his 1983 version of "That’s the Way Love Goes," which was co-written by another artist he admired, Lefty Frizzell, spent 21 weeks on the charts and earned him a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Just as Mr. Haggard studied the works of his musical heroes, contemporary acts look to him: stars like George Strait and Miranda Lambert have cited him as influences, and Eric Church recorded a song called "Pledge Allegiance to the Hag."” (Read more)

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