The Kennedy Center

Merle Haggard


(Singer and songwriter; b. April 6, 1937 Bakersfield, California - d. April 6, 2016 Palo Cedro, CA)

The Country Music Hall of Fame, inducting him in 1994, called him not only "one of the genre's most versatile artists" but also perhaps "the single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history." The praise is fitting, the man's followers are legion, and his songs are not just country--though that certainly would be enough.

Musically, his gifts are breathtaking. Robert Palmer, in a 1980 New York Times profile, remarked how "Haggard's exceptionally true intonation, his command of varied vocal textures and his insinuating phrasing would make him a superior vocalist in any idiom…. Like Muddy Waters in the blues field and only a handful of other performers, he both embodies and transcends his rich American musical heritage." Rolling Stone in 2009 proclaimed his music "the backbone of one of the greatest repertoires in all of American music, plain-spoken songs populated by the kinds of working people Haggard grew up with: farmers, hobos, convicts, widows, musicians and drunks." But leave it to Bob Dylan to best describe what makes this living legend great:

"Merle Haggard has always been as deep as it gets," said Dylan. "Totally himself. Herculean. He definitely transcends the country genre."

Merle Ronald Haggard was born near Bakersfield, California in 1937 to Jim and Flossie Haggard, poor migrant workers who moved west when their farm burned down. His father found work as a carpenter for the Santa Fe Railroad, and the family lived in an old boxcar. Jim died of a stroke when Merle was just nine years old, Flossie found jobs as a bookkeeper, and the boy was left in the care of a great aunt and uncle. His was not a happy childhood and, not surprisingly, the young man rebelled early and often, running away in freight trains at 10, and having run-ins with the law. Music saved him. Old Jim had played the fiddle, and Merle taught himself his late father's instrument, later teaching himself the guitar as well. He found his idols in Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills, and later in Johnny Cash--who encouraged the budding songwriter to write about his hard life. Merle Haggard did just that. He played in clubs in Southern California, joined the "Smilin' Jack Tyree Radio Show" in Springfield, Missouri, played bass for Wynn Stewart in Las Vegas, and got signed by Fuzzy Owens' Tally Records in 1962. After five records with that small label, including 1965's hit "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," Merle Haggard signed with Capitol Records. Johnny Cash himself introduced his young colleague in his show, simply saying, "Here's a man who writes about his own life and has had a life to write about."

"Sing Me Back Home" in 1967, "Mama Tried" in 1968, and especially "Hungry Eyes" in 1969--a searingly honest portrait of an American family in poverty--all struck a deep chord with the American public. "Okie From Muskogee," which Haggard says he started as a joke, was drenched in dark humor and turned Haggard into an unlikely conservative political symbol. Still, this poet of the common man would always be hard to pin down. In a storied career that so far includes more than 600 recorded songs, surprise is one thing fans could count on. "He'll tell you he's a country singer," the record producer Don Was told Newsweek in 1996, "but to me the essence of rock and roll is a cry for freedom and rebellion. And I don't know anyone who embodies it better. Every aspect of his life is a refusal to submit."

He has had the music world's admiration, and more. He has had 38 No. 1 songs on his own, and his song "Today I Started Loving You Again" has been recorded by nearly 400 different artists. His music made it to outer space, when the astronaut Charles Duke took Haggard tapes with him on board Apollo 16 in 1972. The Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music each singled him out as Entertainer of the Year in 1970. He was elected to the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1977 and to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

"I'll tell you what the public likes more than anything," Haggard once told The Boston Globe, "It's the most rare commodity in the world--honesty."

And honest he has always been, from the days of his immortal 1969 "Okie from Muskogee" to his 1984 "That's the Way Love Goes" duet with Jewel , to his surprising the music world by signing with a punk-pop label in 2000; from the confessional "Today I Started Loving You Again" to the political "Me and Crippled Soldiers," and from playing for President Richard Nixon's White House in 1973 and at a barbeque on President Ronald Reagan's ranch in 1982, to his defending the controversial Dixie Chicks in their stand for free expression in 2002. A patriot, he took unashamed pride in his country in "The Fightin' Side of Me," but he also questioned the war in Iraq in "That's the News." In 2009, he wrote a song for President Barack Obama called "Hopes Are High." Honesty indeed informs all these songs. Honesty and an improbable dose of all-American optimism.
Merle Haggard