Merle Haggard, 79Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach
"There is a restlessness in my soul that I've never conquered, not with motion, marriages or meaning."- Merle Haggard
Haggard’s early years were marked by financial struggle, troublemaking and prison time, including a stint at San Quentin State Prison, where he was in the audience for Johnny Cash’s 1959 performance. But Haggard had always been a gifted musician and quick study of songs. He was paroled in 1960 and by 1966 was touring with Merle Haggard & the Strangers.
With hits like “Branded Man” (1967), “Mama Tried” (1968) and “Workin’ Man’s Blues” (1969), Haggard was a bona fide country music star by the late 1960s. He had 38 songs hit No. 1 on the country charts. Haggard is seen here backstage during a taping of the Merv Griffin Show in the late 1970s.
Haggard’s rich vocals made him a favorite among other musicians, but songs like “Okie From Muskgoee” (1969), an anti-counterculture song many related to, but got him in trouble with “the hippies.” “Fightin’ Side of Me” followed in 1970, and for many, these two songs defined him. Here, Haggard plays Farm Aid in September, 1985.
Haggard played one of his last shows in February at the Mandalay Bay Ballroom in Las Vegas, after a bout with pneumonia. After a few songs, the still-recovering Haggard pointed to fellow country star Toby Keith, who stepped in on the fly to sing lead vocals. Haggard died in April.