Merle Haggard was born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California, which is a short drive from Bakersfield. He overcame a troubled childhood and a stint at San Quentin State Prison to become a country music legend both with his band the Strangers and as a solo artist. Haggard racked up 38 number-one hits on the U.S. country charts during his career, most of them about working-class living. Read on to see the singer of "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," "Mama Tried" and "The Legend of Bonnie Clyde" through the decades.
During his incarceration at San Quentin State Prison, Haggard saw Johnny Cash perform on January 1, 1959. The concert inspired Haggard to join the prison's own country band. Soon after he was released in 1960, Haggard began to explore the Bakersfield sound, which had a more stripped-down approach to country music than the polished recordings being made in Nashville. He formed the band the Strangers, who scored their first number-one country hit in 1967 with "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive." In 1969, Haggard released his classic song "Okie From Muskogee."
By the start of the 1970s, Haggard was one of the best-known country singers in the world. He appeared on his first TV special, Let Me Tell You About a Song, in 1972. Released in 1973, "If We Make It Through December," with its lyrics about unemployment and loneliness, became one of Haggard's signature songs and a crossover hit that charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Haggard wrote the theme song for the TV series Movin' On and topped the country charts with songs such as "Grandma Harp," "I Wonder if They Ever Think of Me," "Kentucky Gambler" and "Old Man from the Mountain," to name just a few.
In 1972, when he was governor of California, Ronald Reagan pardoned Haggard for his past misdeeds (he is pictured here with President Reagan in 1982). In 1981, Haggard published an autobiography titled Sing Me Back Home. Between that year and 1985, Haggard scored 12 more top-10 country hits, including "My Favorite Memory," "Going Where the Lonely Go" and "Natural High." Despite the title of the latter song, Haggard's divorce from his third wife, Leona Williams, caused him to go through what he called "male menopause," complicated by alcohol and substance abuse. Even as he struggled with personal problems, Haggard still won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for his 1984 remake of "That's the Way Love Goes." His last No. 1 country hit, "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star," appeared on the 1988 album Chill Factor.
Haggard was hindered by financial woes and personal problems in the 1990s as country music fans began to favor newer artists, but that didn't stop Haggard from recording or performing. Some of his songs that charted during this time period include "When It Rains It Pours," "In My Next Life," and a rerecording of "That's the Way Love Goes" featuring Jewel. He is pictured above performing in Chicago in 1996.
During the aughts, Haggard enjoyed a bit of a comeback as his music was featured in several notable movies of the time. 2003's Radio featured "Mama Tried" as did the horror movie The Strangers starring Liv Tyler, Crash featured "Swingin' Doors," and "Big City" can be heard in Fargo. In 2001, Haggard released an album of gospel songs with Albert E. Brumley titled Two Old Friends. Haggard also collaborated with Gretchen Wilson, Blaine Larsen and Don Henley during the 2000s. He is pictured above getting a smooch on the cheek from Miranda Lambert backstage at the ACM Honors in 2009.
In 2010, Haggard accepted a Kennedy Center Honor for "outstanding contribution to American culture" and for a lifetime of inspiring work. Haggard's last recording, "Kern River Blues," described his disenchantment with politicians. He passed away on his birthday, April 6, 2016, at the age of 79 at his California ranch.
He is pictured above tipping his hat at one of his final concert performances, and we in turn tip our hats to this outlaw country legend who continues to influence today's up-and-coming artists.
READ MORE: Rooted in Country: Kayla Ray on Merle Haggard's 'Heaven Was a Drink of Wine'
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