Merle Haggard, who wrote story-songs of a misspent youth and the tribulations of working people, died Wednesday at his home near Redding, according to his spokeswoman Tresa Redburn. He was 79.
Haggard, who “went out on the same day he came in,” dying on his birthday, had been in and out of the hospital in recent months with recurring bouts of pneumonia.
Born in Bakersfield and forged in San Quentin after a bungled attempt to burgle a store landed him in State Prison, Haggard was among the inmates on hand when Johnny Cash performed at San Quentin in 1958.
That musical interlude in a hard life helped turn him around, he later said, and his association with Cash and other ranking members of the Country Music scene was as astonishing to him at first as the musical successes that later placed his name alongside theirs later in his career.
A self-described “Honkytonker” who wrote songs heavy with meaning for native Californians and people who had seen the rougher side of life. His most successful years as a singer-songwriter ranged from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, when he cranked out nine consecutive country No. 1 singles.
Songs ranged from his landmark “Okie from Muskogee” to autobiographical tales of hard drinking and love gone wrong – songs he said came easily to him because his own life was mirrored in them. He once said he had written 10,000 songs in his career, one during the walk from his limousine to the stage, and his lyrics frequently touched on landmarks familiar to other native Californians:
I’ll never swim Kern River again.
It was there that I met her.
It was there that I lost my best friend.
And now I live in the mountains.
I drifted up here with the wind.
And I may drown in still water,
But I’ll never swim Kern River again.
I grew up in an oil town,
But my gusher never came in.
And the river was a boundary
Where my darlin’ and I used to swim.
One night in the moonlight
The swiftness swept here life away.
And now I live on Lake Shasta and
Lake Shasta is where I will stay.
There’s the South San Joaquin,
Where the seeds of the dust bowl are found.
And there’s a place called Mount Whitney
From where the mighty Kern River comes down.
Well, it’s not deep nor wide,
But it’s a mean piece of water my friend.
And I may cross on the highway,
But I’ll never swim Kern River again