Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 6 April 1937, Oildale CA, near Bakersfield; d 6 April 2016) Country singer, songwriter, bandleader, guitarist and fiddler. He wrote or co-wrote nearly 350 songs (more than the prolific Willie Nelson) and had 38 no. 1 hits on the Billboard country chart. His work was autobiographical, drawing on his rural blue-collar roots; his singing and his guitar playing are first-rate; from the line of the greatest country artists that includes Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, he was dubbed 'the poet of the ordinary man'.

His family migrated from Oklahoma in 1934, like the Okies in John Steinbeck's Grapes Of Wrath, memorably filmed by John Ford in 1940 with Henry Fonda playing a character who might have been Haggard's father, who died in 1946. Merle ran away from home '51, drifted until sent to San Quentin '58 for breaking into a restaurant while drunk and was paroled '60, having practiced music inside. (Ronald Reagan as governor of California later expunged the criminal record.) He went to Bakersfield, met manager Fuzzy Owen and Bonnie Campbell Owens (b 1 October 1932, Blanchard OK; ex-wife of Buck Owens), played bass in Wyn Stewart's band, had hits on Owen's Tally label with Stewart's 'Sing A Sad Song', Liz Anderson's '(From Now On All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers'. His own style heavily influenced by Lefty Frizzell at first, he had a duet hit with Bonnie singing harmony on 'Just Between The Two Of Us' '64; they married '65 and Capitol signed them both that year. He formed band the Strangers, named after his first top ten hit. The marriage over '75, they still sang duets for fans in the late late '70s; meanwhile Leona Williams (b Leona Belle Helton, 7 January 1943, Vienna MO) joined the act and married Merle '78 (they split up five years later).

He recorded duet albums with both wives, but himself became one of the most successful country artists, his own songs among his best, included 'Branded Man', 'Mama Tried', 'Hungry Eyes', 'Workin' Man Blues', 'Okie From Muskogee' '66-9; also 'The Fugitive' (aka 'I'm A Lonesome Fugitive') written by Liz and Casey Anderson. 'Okie' also made the pop chart, a controversial commentary on what was happening in USA at the time, co-written with the band on a bus in Oklahoma; soon another song ('The Fightin' Side Of Me') said about America 'If you don't love it, leave it', but did not mean that America was perfect: he was dubbed 'The Spiro Agnew of music' after 'Okie' but his own politics are anti-authoritarian; he was a guest in Nixon's White House, but later remembered the man who 'lied to us all on TV', and he also wrote anti-racist songs. Several more singles crossed over to Hot 100 '70-7; 'If We Make It Through December' reached top 30; CMA named him Entertainer and Male Vocalist of the Year '70 and Okie From Muskogee was Album of the Year; ACM named him Male Vocalist five times '66-74. 'Here Comes The Freedom Train' (not his own song) was no. 10 country chart in 1976, the bicentennial of the USA.

He switched to MCA '77, continued with hits 'If We're Not Back In Love By Monday' '77, 'I'm Always On A Mountain When I Fall' '78, 'The Way I Am' '80; to Epic '82 for duet LPs with George Jones (A Taste Of Yesterday's Wine '82) and Willie Nelson (Poncho And Lefty was CMA album of the year '83), solo hits 'Big City', 'That's The Way Love Goes', 'Natural High', 'Kern River' '82--5. Meanwhile he had taught himself fiddle in the early 1970s in emulation of another idol, Bob Wills, doubled the size of the Strangers to a ten-piece band and started calling his music 'country jazz' and was the first country artist to appear on the cover of down beat, in 1980.

Unusually for a mainstream country artist Haggard made an impact with concept LPs: Same Train, A Different Time '69 was a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers; A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player In The World -- Bob Wills '70 drew attention of country fans to Wills near the end of his long career; A Land Of Many Churches '73, I Love Dixie Blues/New Orleans Jazz '74, My Love Affair With Trains '76, My Farewell To Elvis '77. More albums included Hag '71, Let Me Tell You About A Song '73, Keep Movin' On '75, Songs I'll Always Sing '77 (two-LP set), Roots Of My Raising '77, Way It Was In '51 '78, all on Capitol; Serving 190 Proof '79, Rainbow Stew '82 on MCA; Songs For The Mama That Tried '81 on MCA/Songbird; That's The Way Love Goes '83, The Epic Collection '84 (recorded live), Kern River '85, all on Epic. It's All In The Game '84 on Epic included the frisky 'Let's Chase Each Other Round The Room', also duets with Janie Fricke; Amber Waves Of Grain '86 on Epic was made live in Nebraska and Indiana during the USA farming crisis, 'a sure-footed blend of nostalgia and righteousness' (Simon Frith); Walking The Line '87 compiled various duet and solo tracks by Haggard, Nelson and Jones; Seashores Of Old Mexico '87 was the second full duet LP with Nelson; Chill Factor '87 had nine of eleven songs written by Hag, Bonnie among the background singers. With 5:01 Blues '89 on Epic his fatalism was so effortless it threatened to turn into a sort of new age country music. He signed with Curb '90, releasing Blue Jungle and 1994.

He played 107 shows in '95; he always calls at least one song the band is not expecting: 'It keeps me on my toes. It damn sure keeps them on theirs!' But country music didn't want risk any more; his last chart entry was with 'In My Next Life' '94, which barely made the top 60, and he was opening shows for Clint Black and Mark Chesnutt, who'd learned from him. His 68th album was 1996, including 'Truck Driver's Blues', which threatened at first to get some airplay, but by '96 the USA's 2,600 country radio stations preferred the choreographed over-produced big-hat music of Garth Brooks and his like. Asked by Tony Scherman (for an article in Atlantic Monthly August '96) which of his own songs best expressed him, Hag thought of 'Leonard'. 'I wrote it about a friend of mine [Tommy Collins]. I sometimes marvel at that one. I don't know how I did it. ''Footlights'' might describe my situation ... ''White Man Singing The Blues'' -- lately I've been thinking how lucky I was to have written that.' All were included on five-CD set Untamed Hawk '95 on Bear Family and four-CD Down Every Road '96, a long-overdue retrospective from Capitol-Nashville, 100 songs by a great American artist.