Merle Haggard has died.
The legendary "Poet of the Common Man," lovingly referred to as "Hag," died this morning on his 79th birthday. He had suffered numerous bouts of double pneumonia over the past four months, forcing him to cancel shows. In February he confessed to Rolling Stone that the December illness "nearly killed me."
Born in California, Haggard's youth was one of trouble. His songs about prison life were written from personal experience: he was incarcerated at San Quentin. In 1959 Johnny Cash did a concert at the prison, with Haggard in the audience. The show changed Haggard's outlook, and he started focusing on music.
He burst on to the scene in the mid-60s, doing songs by Liz Anderson ("[All My Friends Are Going to Be] Strangers," the song that gave his backing band its name) and Tommy Collins (to whom Haggard paid his thanks in the song "Leonard") as well as his own songs. His themes of the down-on-their-luck or hardworking, blue-collar individuals ("I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am," "Working Man Blues") earned him the nickname "The Poet of the Common Man." His pro-American stand in songs like "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" endeared him to countless Americans who appreciated his "opposing view" to the anti-Vietnam, anti-government protests of the late 60s.
Haggard's career never waned. Last year, despite the fact that he was deemed "too old" to be "relevant" in country music, he had a #1 album with his duet collaboration with Willie Nelson, Django and Jimmie.
One of his finest songs was "Sing Me Back Home," a song about a death row inmate ready to be executed. That song's chorus echoes how we all feel with the loss of this mighty country legend:
Let him sing me back home with a song I used to hear
Make my old memories come alive
Take me away, and turn back the years
Sing me back home before I die.
Thank you, Hag. Rest in peace.