I can’t remember the first time I heard Merle Haggard; it was unquestionably at a very young age, as the Hag was one of my grandfather’s favorite artists (along with Hank Williams, Sr. and Johnny Cash). Haggard was one of those old-time country singers and songwriters that didn’t have to look far for the inspiration to his working-class ruminations on life. Born into crushing poverty, his mother turned him over to the authorities as incorrigible when he was just eleven-years-old. He spent most of the next few years in and out of reform school and jail, until his luck ran out in 1957 when he tried to rob a joint and got caught. He was sentenced to two years in San Quentin, which turned out to be a double stroke of providence. The time he spend in San Quentin lead to two of his best songs: “Sing Me Back Home,” which was penned after a conversation with a fellow convict through and airvent, and “Mama Tried,” a reflection on his father’s death. The other stroke of providence was Johnny Cash’s 1958 concert at San Quentin. From that point on, he was star bound.
Along with Buck Owens, he would pioneer the hard-edged Bakersfield sound that was a slap in the face to Nashville’s countrypolitan movement, and go on to have 38 number 1 singles in his career. George Jones once called Merle Haggard, “my favorite country music singer.”
Country music lost an icon today, and we’re all a little poorer for it.