Merle Haggard, one of country’s greatest singer-songwriters, died Wednesday on his 79th birthday.
According to a report from the Associated Press, Haggard’s manager, Frank Mull, said the country icon died at home in Palo Cedro, Calif. Haggard, who had been battling recurring double pneumonia, had canceled several performances as the year began, including all of his April dates.
“A week ago Dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn’t wrong,” wrote Haggard’s son Ben on Facebook Wednesday, accompanied by a touching deathbed photo. “A hour ago he took his last breath surrounded by family and friends. He loved everything about life and he loved that every one of you gave him a chance with his music. He wasn't just a country singer. He was the best country singer that ever lived.”
A flinty, no-nonsense troubadour, Haggard built a four-decade, Country Music Hall of Fame-worthy career on the strength of songs like his signature Okie from Muskogee, Mama Tried or If We Make It Through December.
Prior to hitting it big, Haggard served time in San Quentin for various offenses, although, according to his extensive obituary on Bakersfield.com, he found the straight and narrow once he signed his first record deal in 1962.
Given his rough-and-tumble background, Haggard’s catalog resonated with the common man, a hallmark of Music City’s once humble songwriting tradition, despite the musician’s roots in laid-back Bakersfield, Calif.
Along with Buck Owens, Haggard rewired country music to incorporate more of a rock ’n’ roll feel — the twang of Mama Tried owes as much to Elvis as it does Hee Haw — which was an attitude he carried with him his entire life. Late last year, he lamented to a journalist in Fargo, N.D., about the sorry state of modern country music.
“They’re talking about screwing on a pickup tailgate and things of that nature,” he told The Forum of Fargo-Moorehead. “I don’t find no substance. I don’t find anything you can whistle to and nobody even attempts to write a melody. It’s more of that kids’ stuff. It’s hot right now, but I’ll tell you what, it’s cooling off.”
Haggard, much like his classic country contemporaries, was a tireless road warrior, performing hundreds of dates a year from one side of the country to the other, lending a wry irony to the title of his last solo studio album, 2011’s Working in Tennessee.
His final release was last year’s Django & Jimmie, a full-length collaboration with Willie Nelson, who issued a brief but sweet statement on Wednesday: “He was my brother. My friend. I will miss him.”
Haggard’s final performance in Fort Worth was July 3, 2015 at, fittingly enough, Billy Bob’s Texas. (His final overall North Texas appearance was just five months ago, on Nov. 15, 2015, at Dallas’ Gas Monkey Live.)
Pam Minick, the former longtime marketing manager at Billy Bob’s, says that she believes that Haggard played the club at least 40 times during his career. Her favorite memory happened one night when Haggard played for a fund-raiser at the club, and an audience member bought one of Haggard’s hats that he donated for $1,500.
“I went backstage and said ‘Merle, John Smith bought your hat and he’s sitting in the front row it would be nice if you could acknowledge him,” Minick said via email. “Merle never even blinked as I was talking to him and I thought, ‘Well maybe he just was a little bit chemically altered and didn't hear me.’ He never acknowledged me. I'll be darned if he didn't go out on stage and halfway through the song say ‘I'd like to thank John Smith for buying my hat in the fundraiser’.”
Haggard was the second artist ever recorded on the Billy Bob’s record label, Minick says. Cable network AXS-TV will air a 2004 Live at Billy Bob’s performance by Haggard at 11:30 a.m. Friday and 9 a.m. Saturday as part of a tribute to the singer.
The 2015 gig at Billy Bob’s was his second Fort Worth appearance in less than a year, following a bill he shared with Marty Stuart at Bass Hall in Nov. 2014.
Of the Bass Hall performance, I wrote, “His stirring rendition of Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver) served as the night’s emotional centerpiece, asking a question fans of genuine country music, the sort not involving muddin’ and red Solo cups, often ponder aloud: ‘Are the good times really over for good?’”
The reaction to Haggard’s death was swift and wide-ranging, with many taking to social media to share their memories of Haggard or pay tribute to the man and his music.
Rising country star and Arlington native Maren Morris tweeted: “Another legend lost.”
“In my book, Merle was the greatest country singer of our time,” says Mike Crow, program director for Fort Worth’s KTFW/92.1 “Hank” FM. “He was inspired by another great country singer, Lefty Frizzell. They both rose to the top of the field with distinct vocals in their own style, something that is lost in this day of ‘sound alike’ singers. Artists like Haggard and [George] Jones molded the genre and made country music great from the ‘50s through the ‘80s. Haggard was lucky enough to celebrate his birthday in Honky Tonk Heaven today.”
Crow said the station was playing a Hag song every hour in the singer’s honor.
Mark “Hawkeye” Louis, host of the Hawkeye in the Morning show on country station KSCS/96.3 FM, had similar thoughts.
“Today a lot of music fans associate Nashville as the capital of country music,” Louis said via email. “But there was a day when the west coast was just as influential. Merle Haggard's sound and perspective represented the Bakersfield Sound. I wonder if his career could have happened in today's image-conscious society. His influence and his unique sound and perspective will be missed.”
Legendary Fort Worth disc jockey Bill Mack mourned Haggard’s passing on Facebook: “No words can explain the personal hurt to me ... and countless others,” Mack wrote. “I honestly can’t think of a more sad day in country music history. Merle had it all: Singer ... songwriter ... performer. Most important — he considered his fans as personal friends. God rest his soul.”
Reached by phone later Wednesday, Mack recalled that Haggard had done a guest appearance on his WBAP/820 AM show when the singer was on his way to Muskogee. Mack said that Haggard was somewhat shy on the air, making for a bit of a tough interview until a certain Haggard fan called in.
“He loved Lefty Frizzell and admits that a lot of his song stylings came from Lefty Frizzell,” Mack says. “Lefty was listening to my show in Nashville ... and he knew that Merle loved his music. So Lefty called the radio station. The girl answering the telephone said, ‘Lefty Frizzell is on the phone.’ I said, ‘Don’t tell Merle.’
“I told Merle, ‘One of your fans wants to talk to you’,” Mack continued. “Merle was a little bit reluctant, but he sat down the microphone and opened up the gadget where he could talk to whoever called, and this voice came on and said, ‘Hello, Merle!’ Merle said, ‘Who is this?’ ‘This is Lefty.’ I thought Merle was going to collapse.”
DFW.com staff writer Robert Philpot contributed to this report.