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Merle Haggard: Working-Class Poet of Country Music

One of country music's most prolific hit-makers dies on his 79th birthday

Merle Haggard, 1985
Merle Haggard performs in 1985.
Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

Singer, guitarist and songwriter Merle Haggard was one of the most prolific hit-makers in country music, with an astonishing string of 38 chart-topping country singles stretching from the 1960s into the 1980s.

Haggard songs such as “Mama Tried,” “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Branded Man” and “Okie From Muskogee” reflected the experiences of a performer who didn’t have to invent a rough-hewn past. As Rolling Stone writer Jason Fine once noted, his lyrics were populated by the kinds of people Haggard grew up with in hardscrabble Bakersfield, Calif. — “farmers, hobos, convicts, widows, musicians and drunks."

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Here are some facts you might not know about Haggard, who died at age 79 on his birthday, April 6, in California.

  • Haggard was born in a boxcar that his railroad-worker father, James, had remodeled into a home.
  • As a young man, Haggard served time in San Quentin State Prison for robbery. In 1958, while in prison, he attended a concert by Johnny Cash that inspired him to take up country music.
  • After his release from prison, he supported himself by working as a ditchdigger while trying to break into the music business.
  • His song “Big City” appears in the 1996 movie Fargo.
  • “Mama Tried” was frequently covered by the Grateful Dead and among the band’s set list at 1969’s Woodstock Festival.
  • He was a recipient of a Kennedy Center Honors award in 2010, along with Paul McCartney and Oprah Winfrey.
  • Though he had criticized protesters against the Vietnam War, Haggard’s views apparently shifted over the years. His 2003 song, “That’s the News,” railed against positive media coverage of the invasion of Iraq.