Despite his well-known song saying he’s an Okie from Muskogee, Merle Haggard never claimed it as autobiographical. The country music legend was born in Oildale, California. Although he wasn’t a native Texan, he got here as fast as he could.
At age 14, Haggard rode freight trains and hitch-hiked across the the country, trying to escape a past of minor juvenile offenses. He eventually landed on the charts, becoming a bonafide country music star.
Haggard died yesterday at the age of 79, and with his passing, joined a very small constellation of music legends.
Veteran music journalist John T. Davis has been writing about Texas music for decades, he says one of his favorite memories of Haggard took place at the now defunct Alamo Hotel on 6th and Congress in Austin. It was there that Haggard and Willie Nelson performed and recorded “Pancho & Lefty.”
“His passing leaves a big hole in country music,” Davis says. “I think Haggard was responsible for many many people first becoming aware of Bob Wills and western swing in general.”
There’s one specific song David would point curious minds to if they wanted to know a little bit more about Haggard: “Mama Tried.” It’s one of Haggard’s more autobiographical songs, Davis says.
“[It] not only has one of his best lyrics but also has that great unmistakable guitar lick in it,” he says.
“He’s wildly underrated as a songwriter.” Davis says. “He was a rhythm guitar player, he didn’t stick out in that regard. He had that twangy kind of lived-in voice. You could tell there was a lot of mileage behind that voice … that quality of having a lived a life rather than just sung about it.”
Davis says Haggard was an iconoclastic figure, he had a certain Texas affinity.
“He couldn’t be pigeon-holed neatly either musically or in his life,” he says. “That points him in a very Texas-esque sort of pantheon. … He just sort of had a western demeanor to him.”