died on his 79th birthday, Wednesday, April 6, 2016.
As the Times obit tells it, he was a California native who spent his first few years living in an abandoned boxcar his father had fixed up during the depression years as a family home. His teens and early adulthood were marked by scrapes with the law, culminating in 1957 in his his being sent to San Quentin Prison for burglary.
He was paroled in 1960, and went on to become one of country music's most influential stars. Early on, he worked with Wynn Stewart, a Missouri native who moved to California and was the first exponent of what came to be called the "Bakersfield Sound", named for a city near the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley, north of Los Angeles. Country music from Bakersfield was more hard-edged than that coming from Nashville at the time, when Nashville was trying to broaden its appeal with what guitar wizard and producer Chet Atkins called "countrypolitan". Bakersfield music provided the roots for what in the late 1970s was called "outlaw" country, exemplified by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, along with Merle.
According to the Times obit, Merle included among his influences Lefty Frizzell, who gave Merle's career a boost by inviting him onstage after hearing him sing along from the audience; Elvis Presley; Jimmie "The Yodeling Brakeman" Rodgers, considered one of the founders of modern country music; Chuck Berry; and the King of Texas Swing, Bob Wills.
He influenced many, including Waylon and Willie, and my great favorite, Gram Parsons. The song in the clip above, "Sing Me Back Home", one that Merle wrote based on a prison experience, I first heard sung by Gram with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
Goodbye, Merle. I like thinking that you, Waylon, and Ol' Possum George Jones are singing great harmony now.
Photo at the top of this post is public domain: Merle Haggard dressed for Kennedy Center Honors at the White House, December 2010.