Country music legend Merle Haggard passed away today (4.6.2016), from complications of pneumonia. It was his 79th birthday.
If you ever thought (like I did) that Merle Haggard looked a bit weathered, it’s because Merle led a hard life, at least in the beginning. When Merle was 8 years old, his father died of a brain hemorrhage, and he never really recovered from it. Merle’s brother, Lowell, gave Merle his first guitar at age 12, but within a couple of years, music took a back seat to committing crimes, from shoplifting to larceny to assault to attempted robbery.
A couple of bright spots during this early and troubling time for Merle involved music. First, at an early 50s concert for one of Merle’s music heroes, Lefty Frizzell, Lefty heard Merle singing to his songs backstage and got Merle to come out onstage. Merle’s performance was well-received, so much so that Merle decided to give music a shot.
A few years later, after being transferred to San Quentin Prison for another crime, Merle heard Johnny Cash perform at the prison and ultimately joined the prison’s Country music band. In 1960, Merle Haggard was released from San Quentin (he got a full pardon in 1972 from then-Governor Ronald Reagan). Within 3 years of being a free man, he scored his first BILLBOARD Top 40 Country hit, “Sing A Bad Song.”
By the end of the 60s, Merle Haggard had racked up 8 (of 38) No. 1 BILLBOARD Country hits. That total of 38 ranks him third of all-time on that chart, behind Conway Twitty (40) and George Strait (44).
Merle’s last No. 1 Country hit of the 60s turned out to be not only his signature song, but a nickname as well – “Okie From Muskokee,” which sparked debates about the Vietnam War, and has since cemented its place in pop culture, from being featured in Oliver Stone’s PLATOON to a 2015 episode of the popular TV show, MAD MEN. The song spent 4 weeks at No. 1 on BILLBOARD’s country chart, and just missed the Top 40 on the BILLBOARD Hot 100, stopping at No. 41.
In 1983, Merle Haggard recorded a Honky-Tonk album with another fellow Country outlaw – Willie Nelson. PANCHO & LEFTY was a huge album for Country music that year, spending 8 weeks at No. 1 on BILLBOARD’s Country album chart between April and October 1983. The title track was written by Folk and Blues legend, Townes Van Zandt, who first recorded it in 1972.
Emmylou Harris covered “Pancho & Lefty” in 1977, as did Hoyt Axton (who appeared on 2 episodes of WKRP IN CINCINNATI in 1979). But, it was the 1983 version by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard that gave the song its biggest audience (there’s a live, later version of the song for you at the end of the post). It spent a week at No. 1 on BILLBOARD’s Country singles chart in July 1983, and was one of an impressive 14 No. 1 Country songs Merle had in the 1980s (to compare, Michael Jackson, the biggest Pop star of the 80s, tallied 9 No. 1 songs on the BILLBOARD Hot 100).
Merle and Willie teamed up for a total of 6 albums, the sixth of which was released just last year, DJANGO & JIMMIE. It was Merle’s last album, and yes, it did find its way to No. 1 on BILLBOARD’s Country Albums chart, as it should have.
To be honest, I’m not a big Country music fan, but, I can say I have a lot of respect for Merle Haggard. And, so did other folks, especially fellow musicians like The Grateful Dead. The Dead covered “Mama Tried,” Merle’s No. 1 hit from 1968, nearly 300 times.
R.I.P. Merle, and many thanks…