Country Superstar Merle Haggard Dies At 79

Apr 7, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 1:31 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many a veteran must have gone off to war listening to Merle Haggard. The country singer has died after a storied life that once seemed to be going almost as badly as those of his characters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA TRIED")

MERLE HAGGARD: (Singing) One and only rebel child from a family meek and mild, my mama seemed to know what lay in store. Spent all my Sunday learning, towards the bad I kept on turning, till mama couldn't hold me anymore.

INSKEEP: Haggard sang often of people like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA TRIED")

HAGGARD: (Singing) I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole.

INSKEEP: He was part of the outlaw country movement - singing of drinking and crime. In his youth, the singer himself was in and out of prison. But he found a life in music, produced decades of hits - "Skid Row," "The Drinkin' Side Of Me," "Workin' Man Blues," many more - and died yesterday on his 79th birthday. In 2010, Merle Haggard told us he felt lucky he was still alive. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we call one of Merle Haggard's songs "The Drinkin' Side of Me." The correct song title is "The Fightin' Side of Me."]

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HAGGARD: Well, you know, I had a bout with lung cancer in '08. November 30 - took a growth out of my chest and took my upper right lobe with it. But I've survived, and I don't have anything left in my body that I know of. So things may take on a different outlook.

INSKEEP: You must have that moment as a singer when somebody comes and says lung cancer. Entirely aside from wondering whether you'll survive, you've got to wonder if you're going to sing.

HAGGARD: Well, that's the first thing that crossed my mind, evidently, when I came out of the ICU. They said I was yodeling (laughter).

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

HAGGARD: (Yodeling).

INSKEEP: In that conversation, late in his life, Merle Haggard still vividly remembered his earlier years evading the law and hopping trains.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HAGGARD: I rode a freight from Oregon back to Bakersfield. That's over a bunch of mountains. And it was in the wintertime. And there was snow, and there was ice. And two other hobos and me crammed down in the ice compartment of an old refrigerator car, looking at each other with nothing to say (laughter).

INSKEEP: The ice compartment was warmer than being outside, I guess.

HAGGARD: Oh, you bet.

INSKEEP: What did you learn from that?

HAGGARD: Take enough money to ride a bus.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) So much for the romance of the rails.

HAGGARD: Yeah, it's really not all that great, I can tell you.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) So you're happy with how things have worked out now. You're not still itching to ride a freight train back up to Oregon or something.

HAGGARD: Well, I itch once in a while. I see one go by. But they - you know, they've got readouts on the engine now that tell you when there's somebody that jumps on the train. And they know it, so you might as well go up and ask the engineer to let you ride in the engine. That's what I would do if I was hopping freights nowadays.

INSKEEP: It seems like you've actually given some study to this possibility in recent years.

HAGGARD: I've thought about it many, many times. I've thought, you know, just go out there and get on the old freight and disappear into the wall or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OIL TANKER TRAIN")

HAGGARD: (Singing) From my checkered past I can always bring back the memories we felt in that home by the track.

INSKEEP: That's Merle Haggard, who died yesterday at 79, having lived life largely as he wanted.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OIL TANKER TRAIN")

HAGGARD: (Singing) And all these years later it's still stuck in my brain.

INSKEEP: Love that song. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.