Merle Haggard, 79, dies in his tour bus on his birthday

Merle-Haggard-kcmuseum.jpgKern County Museum.

Oops: Original hed had a typo in the age.

merle-haggard-tny.jpgCountry music great Merle Haggard died today of undisclosed causes at his home near Redding, about 450 miles north of Bakersfield, the Kern County town that his style of music helped put on America's cultural map. He was outside in his tour bus at the time he died, his manager Fuzzy Owen said. "You'd have to be a musician to understand.” Haggard turned 79 today.

Along with his friend Buck Owens, Haggard gave rise to the Bakersfield Sound when California and LA venues like the Palomino Club in North Hollywood were dominant forces in country music.

Former Los Angeles Times pop music critic Robert Hilburn, author of a recent biography of Johnny Cash, praised Haggard on Twitter this morning as "maybe the greatest combination country singer and songwriter of his generation."

In that 2004 story, Hilburn writes:

Listen to his "White Line Fever" and you can picture being on the bus with him night after night, watching the highway lines roll by, or listen to "Tulare Dust" and you can relive with him the longing a boy in the San Joaquin Valley had for the glamour of the big city. Then listen to the gritty "Big City" and you understand why he retreated to the calm countryside.

In his early album cover photos, Haggard had the rugged good looks and charisma of a young Johnny Cash. Now he's 67, and lines cross his face like stretches of barbed wire, and there is a story behind each of them. Restlessness and home, lust and devotion, heartache and good times, protest and patriotism -- all have etched his life, and his songs.

Country music tends to be so sentimental and homespun it's easy to stumble into self-parody, but Haggard has brought a freshness to the themes that places him alongside Hank Williams and Willie Nelson as one of the greatest country music writers.

"There are lots of people who have written hits, but most songs don't stick with us because you know and I know and the songwriter knows he's just telling us about something that never really happened. But then you listen to Hank Williams' 'I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You),' and everybody knows this ol' boy had his heart stepped on more than a few times. That's what I've always wanted people to feel when they hear my songs."

Haggard estimates he has written 10,000 songs, but finds only a fraction of them worth recording. Most of the great ones didn't start flowing until he got a tip from one of his musical heroes, Johnny Cash.

Haggard had witnessed Cash's 1958 performance inside San Quentin prison as an inmate, sent away for a botched burglary. "He had grown up a troublemaker — a teenage runaway who rode the rails and turned petty criminal," the LA Times says in its obit today.

Haggard was born in Oildale, outside Bakersfield, after his family migrated from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl in the 1930s to live in a converted railroad box car. From the LAT obit by Jill Leovy.

Haggard’s scores of plain, rough-livin’ character songs made him a critics’ choice for one of the leading songwriters of his generation; Hilburn once claimed only Willie Nelson rivaled him in the country tradition among living songwriters.

But Haggard was also famous for his rich baritone singing voice. The voice dipped, broke and warbled with despair. It gave vocal form to the electric Fender-guitar twanginess of what came to be know as the “Bakersfield Sound” — that made-in-California genre calculated to cut through the noisy din of Bakersfield bars.

Haggard took singing very seriously. He spoke as a man seeking to master difficult maneuvers. He recounted efforts to hone his voice to approach the authenticity and restless inflection of his idol, country singer Lefty Frizzell.

Eventually, his style would prove so influential that the Haggard sound became a standard country sound. Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, George Strait, Mark Chesnutt and Clint Black are just a few of the artists whose style recalls Haggard’s.

Despite this, Haggard in late middle age struggled as new waves of country-pop passed him by. He lamented the absence of seriousness in this music, and condemned what he saw as the “bubblegum side.”

To him, country music remained what it had ever been: “An art form,” he called it.

Here's a link to a 1990 profile of Haggard in The New Yorker, titled simply Ornery, and coverage today in the daily newspaper of Bakersfield, California — with a photo gallery, local reaction and more. Sample:

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.

The poet of the working man died at 9:20 a.m. Wednesday — his 79th birthday — on his tour bus at his home near Redding surrounded by family, according to Fuzzy Owen, his manager of 54 years, who was with the singer when he died. 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. Haggard had asked to be taken out to the tour bus two or three days ago, said Owen, who noted it was not unusual for the singer, who wrote so effectively about his lifelong wanderlust, to stay on the bus while at home.

“You'd have to be a musician to understand,” said Owen, minutes before heading home to Bakersfield from Redding.

Here also is the Merle Haggard video with the most views on YouTube through the years.

Also "Pancho and Lefty," posted two days ago by Willie Nelson.

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