Country Music Loses an Icon: Merle Haggard Passes Away at 79

Merle Haggard at Stafford Centre, April 2014
Merle Haggard at Stafford Centre, April 2014
Photo by Jim Bricker

According to numerous reports, country-music icon Merle Haggard has passed away after a battle with double pneumonia. His manager confirmed Haggard’s death to Britain’s The Independent; today was also his 79th birthday.

Haggard’s loss is inestimable. He set the bar high indeed for every honky-tonk singer to follow with early songs like "All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers" and "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." He was also often called the greatest songwriter in country-music history, with dozens of hits topping the country charts. His plainspoken songs were always closer in spirit to folk singers like Woody Guthrie than many of his peers, evident in the titles of “Workin’ Man Blues,” “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” and “If We Make It Through December,” among many others. Of the country greats who came to prominence alongside Haggard in the 1950s and ’60s — names like Johnny Cash, Porter Wagoner, Buck Owens and George Jones — now only Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson, who had a No. 1 country album with Haggard last year with Django and Jimmie, remain.

Haggard had been scheduled to perform at Houston’s Arena Theatre on June 16. The Houston Press last reviewed him almost exactly two years ago, at the Stafford Centre.

For the Hag, who also happens to turn 77 years old on Sunday, that means a precision-tuned road band that still plays hundreds of gigs a year and songwriting as simple and intricate as a Swiss watch. Tuesday night at Stafford Centre, he and longtime band the Strangers played 20 songs to a rowdy but respectful crowed that loudly acknowledged almost every instrumental solo, and was otherwise unshy about expressing general approval. It was that show where people around you sang along softly and "woo-hoo"-ed liberally instead of talking to their friends. Imagine that.

Haggard and the Strangers didn't give anyone much time for chatter, though, cranking out 20 songs in scarcely 90 minutes. Like a jazz gig, it was a good show to enjoy the pure pleasure of skilled musicians practicing their craft onstage, and these guys were pros.

Haggard was a true gentleman, even in a phone interview. One of my greatest memories as a journalist is talking to him about a year before that Stafford show. Most of our conversation centered around his 1984 hit duet with Nelson, the Townes Van Zandt-penned “Pancho and Lefty”:

Haggard recalls Nelson as having "Pancho" all ready to go, but wanting his partner to come into the studio and cut the song live. Nelson had written Van Zandt's lyrics on a paper sack, and folded it out in front of Haggard.

Haggard resisted at first, he remembers.

"I said, 'Man, I've been up for five days, I'll do mine in the morning,' he says. "You go ahead and put the track down — do yours and leave mine open for the morning. I sing a lot better in the morning.”

But Nelson pushed right back.

"He said, 'No, I want you to come in here and sing this motherfucker,' Haggard says. "I said, 'OK, goddammit, I will.’

"I got up," Hag continues. "I just barely remember going in there. I was about half-awake. I went in there and I cut it with the full intention that I would do it over in the morning.”

Except that's not quite what happened.

"I got up in the morning and I said, 'Where's that record at?' Haggard says. "They said, 'Hell, it's on the way to New York. That son of a bitch is a smash.’

"I said, 'What did I sound like?'"

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