In a year already defined by the loss of so many musical legends, it is with extremely heavy hearts that we report the passing of Merle Haggard, an indisputable titan of country music. According to Nashville’s WSMV, Haggard’s manager has confirmed Haggard’s death as the result of complications from pneumonia. Today was his 79th birthday.
When you think of the handful of legendary musicians that paved the way for virtually every modern country musician and songwriter, Haggard is a name that comes to mind reflexively. Along with Willie Nelson, Townes van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash, Haggard helped popularize the outlaw country movement that arose as a response to the more traditional “Nashville Sound” in Tennessee from the late ’60s through the ’80s.
An outlaw himself, Haggard spent several years in San Quentin Prison after an attempted robbery of a roadhouse in his hometown of Bakersfield, California. After seeing Johnny Cash perform at his institution in 1958, Haggard was inspired to join his prison country band, where he cut his teeth as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter. By 1966, Haggard had his first number one hit with “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” and in 1969 he recorded his anti-hippie missive “Okie from Muskogee.” From this point on, Haggard was well on his way to becoming one of the most beloved bad boy songwriters in country music.
The most visible testaments to his ability and his musical legacy, however, were his collaborations and friendships that defined all parts of his career. From his initial number one record with Liz Anderson to his well documented friendship with fellow icon Willie Nelson, Haggard was a musician with vast deference to his peers, and a spiritual connection to the music they all made for each other. Perhaps no song characterizes this better than Nelson and Haggard’s cover of van Zandt’s “Pancho & Lefty,” which is one of his best known performances, and charted in 1983.
Though the good times are over for Merle Haggard in this lifetime, his whiskey-soaked, golden voice will shine on, influencing young musicians to pick up a guitar and simply make good music with their close friends. Rest in peace, Merle, you will be truly missed.
Let’s celebrate some of Merle Haggard’s best songs in the playlist below, and let us know your favorites in the comments below.