Merle Haggard composed the soundtrack of a generation of displaced Okies, Arkies and Texans — the rootlessness, the poverty, the field work — but he did it with such towering artistry that the Oildale native, the son of a railroad man and God-fearing mother, belonged not just to Bakersfield but the world.I grew up thinking Haggard was an ultra-conservative, failing to grasp the irony in a character study like "Okie from Muskogee." That song criticized Vietnam war protestors but was mistaken by some (me!) to be pro-war. Of course, the song was actually pro-soldier—an enormous difference—and Haggard made a career out of exploring the neglected cracks and crevices of American life. Haggard's pre-fame years were characterized by delinquency, small-time crime, and imprisonment; his early jobs were ones of difficult physical labor: ditch digger, hay pitcher, oil well shooter. Music became a lifeline for Haggard, and his position at the forefront of the Bakersfield sound injected grit and life into the slick, Nashville-based country music of the '60s.
The poet of the working man died Wednesday — his 79th birthday — at his home near Redding surrounded by family, according to a source close to the singer who asked to remain anonymous. The cause of death was not immediately available but for months Haggard had been suffering the effects of double pneumonia. He had recently canceled a number of scheduled performances.
In the years since, Haggard became a reliable figurehead in American music, able to be embraced by both sides of the fence. His songwriting was peerless, his delivery was authoritative and wholly credible, and his music illustrated a slice of American life that was utterly devoid of glamour. His songs occurred in a place where poverty, crime, god, and family formed the backbone of existence, where love is a luxury, where hard work's reward wasn't necessarily a monetary one. Haggard was a fixture of country music, but his influence was felt far beyond any one sphere. He made his mark, and he will be missed.