Merle Haggard grew up in California during the thirties. His father’s death when Merle was young led to a troubled time during the Depression. Various crimes got Merle imprisoned several times. He was in San Quentin in 1959 when Johnny Cash performed at the prison. That performance inspired Merle to join the prison band, and he began working on a career singing Country music after being released the next year.
Merle had a handful of moderate hits between 1962 and 1965, including a top ten single written by Lynn Anderson’s mother, (My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers. In 1966, he began recording using the Strangers (a band from Bakersfield) as his backup band. The result was a perfect meshing of styles and instant recording successes. Beginning that year, he had one or more #1 Country records every year until 1977.
Merle released a record that kicked up a lot of controversy in 1969: Okie From Muskogee. The song came out at the height of the protests against the war in Vietnam, and it was a protest song of sorts. The lyrics praised the conservative values of middle Americans who didn’t burn draft cards, smoke marijuana, or protest against the government. The song was a number one country hit but folks put down by the song hated it and often made fun of it. Like his other singles in the past, the record didn’t reach the Hot 100, but it made Merle a more recognizable personality. Starting with his next single, Merle’s singles sometimes got airplay on top forty stations and could finally reach the Hot 100.
Merle nearly reached the Hot 100 top forty in 1971 with his release of Carolyn. The record peaked at #53 and paved the way for his biggest pop crossover hit. His single If We Make It Through December came out in 1973 and made it to #28. Merle and the Strangers wrote the song, which told the story of a downtrodden man trying to make it through tough times (and even mentioned Christmas).
Merle only had one more single reach the top forty on the Hot 100. His only single from the album My Farewell To Elvis was From Graceland to the Promised Land. Elvis had died on August 16, 1977, and Merle’s tribute to the King reached #58 on the Hot 100 and #4 on the Country chart.
Merle’s career continued on the Country charts where he had another dozen number one singles and another 16 top ten hits by 1989. Merle was 79 years old when he died in 2016 after a bout of double pneumonia.
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