Legendary country and Western musician Merle Haggard passed away today, on what was his 79th birthday. According to numerous reports, Haggard was suffering from double pneumonia when he lost his life, at his home in Redding, CA. Haggard had been battling the illness for some time, spending a number of days in the hospital earlier this year, and was even planning to tour with Willie Nelson after releasing an album together last year.
Haggard was a countrywestern icon, and gained national fame for his 1969 hit “Okie From Muskogee.” The song came at the height of protests against the Vietnam War, with Haggard feeling frustrated as the counterculture movement did not understand the true nature of war. In the American Masters episode about his life, Haggard summed up “Muskogee” succinctly:
“That’s how I got into it with the hippies…I thought they were unqualified to judge America, and I thought they were lookin’ down their noses at something that I cherished very much, and it pissed me off. And I thought, ‘You sons of bitches, you’ve never been restricted away from this great, wonderful country, and yet here you are in the streets bitchin’ about things, protesting about a war that they didn’t know any more about than I did. They weren’t over there fightin’ that war anymore than I was.”
Once the song was released, Haggard became a national sensation. He would come to embody the “Outlaw Country” movement, and enjoy success throughout a career that spanned over 50 years. With previous successes on songs like “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” and “Sing Me Back Home,” and further hits like “The Fightin’ Side Of Me,” “I Wonder If They Think of Me” and more, Haggard was a beloved voice throughout the history of music.
Ironically, while Haggard would symbolize the “Silent Majority” against the counterculture, one of his songs would be performed many times over by a band that symbolized the counterculture at its purest: The Grateful Dead. Listen to a rousing version of Haggard’s song “Mama Tried,” performed by the Dead below:
And Haggard’s original version, below:
Merle Haggard remained active in his later years, touring with Willie Nelson and playing frequently in California. His loss is a great sadness for the music community, and we’re sending our prayers and thoughts to his family and loved ones during this difficult time.