He left this world on April 6, the same day he came in back in 1937. Really, there's no other way Merle Haggard could've gone out.
From his hardscrabble California childhood to his golden years as one of country music's icons, Haggard lived each day of his life as his own unwavering man, revered as much for his unflinching outlaw attitude as his heartfelt, heartbreaking songs.
His death Wednesday on his 79th birthday was not entirely unexpected — he'd been hospitalized for pneumonia in recent months, canceling a string of concerts, including one at the Florida Strawberry Festival in March — but it devastated the country music world nonetheless.
On Twitter, John Rich called Haggard "the greatest country songwriter of ALL TIME," while Charlie Daniels called his death "one of the greatest losses (country music) will ever experience."
It's true: Often imitated, Haggard can never be replaced; his life was just too singular. Like the deaths of George Jones, Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings, his passing represents the end of an era in American music.
A former Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year and member of both the Country Music and Grammy halls of fame, Haggard was among the key progenitors of the "Bakersfield sound," a twangy, Western-tinged and poetically honest alternative to the slicker sounds coming out of Nashville.
He was a rebellious young man, in prison for burglary by age 21 — an experience he recounted in the timeless Mama Tried: "One and only rebel child / from a family meek and mild / my mama seemed to know what lay in store." It was in San Quentin State Prison that he first saw Johnny Cash perform, an experience that put him on a path toward country music.
Hard time, hard labor and hard living featured prominently across Haggard's songbook — Skid Row, Branded Man, Sing Me Back Home, The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde — making him something of an unofficial poet laureate of the American criminal justice system. He drank too much, married too often, grappled with cocaine, came to friendly terms with pot. His lyrics were inspired by his life; when fans began calling the music he popularized "outlaw country," they weren't exaggerating.
Yet while his tell-it-like-it-is attitude won him fans both inside and outside of Nashville — artists who covered his songs included everyone from the Grateful Dead to Joan Baez to Dean Martin — Haggard maintained a conservative, or at least libertarian, streak.
One of his signature songs, 1969's Okie From Muskogee — inspired by his parents' western exodus from the Dust Bowl depression of Oklahoma — was embraced as an homage to small towns where "we still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse" and a repudiation of "the hippies out in San Francisco." He followed that with The Fightin' Side of Me, a challenge to anyone daring to protest the Vietnam War: "If you don't love it, leave it / Let this song I'm singin' be a warnin' / If you're runnin' down my country, man / you're walkin' on the fightin' side of me." In 1972, then California Gov. Ronald Reagan expunged his criminal record, and in 1973 he performed both songs for Richard Nixon at the White House.
But Haggard never liked to be pinned on either side of the political tracks. He would later express regret for embracing the right so emphatically, and as proof he would point to another song he wrote during those years, Irma Jackson, a story about a frowned-upon interracial romance: "I remember when no one cared about us being friends / We were only children and it really didn't matter then / But we grew up too quickly in a world that draws a line."
Rebellion. Independence. Unvarnished authenticity. That's what Haggard gave us in hundreds of songs, maybe thousands, including some 40 No. 1s and more than 70 that reached the Top 10. It's the mere idea of Merle Haggard, as much as the man himself, that has inspired singers like Eric Church to write songs like Pledge Allegiance to the Hag, a salute to bars with "Merle on the jukebox . . . where you can hear the sound of a steel guitar, and get loud and rowdy with PBR." Rest assured, as long as Church keeps singing that song, fans will keep tipping their hats and raising their glasses of cold, cold beer to Haggard's honor.
"Merle's power has always come from the truth he tells — about life and love and everything in between," President Obama said when Haggard received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. "As he says, 'The best songs feel like they've always been there.' "
Haggard's always will be. Just two weeks ago, Mama Tried was added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry, ensuring it'll keep tugging heartstrings as long as this country exists. As everyone knew it always would.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.