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You won’t hear anybody refer to him as the father of country music. But many will swear he’s at least its godfather.
In the ever-expanding array of country music stars, hitmakers and idols, Haggard walks in no man’s shadow. Instead, he casts a far-reaching shadow of his own. Rare is the country balladeer that has mastered the idiom at so many different levels as he has.
Haggard’s first single was “Singing My Heart Out,” which received some regional airplay on the West Coast, but it was in 1963 that he eventually broke into the top twenty of Billboard’s country charts with his first national hit, “Sing A Sad Song.” Since then the country charts have been his second home. His next few singles—“(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down”—all landed within the Top 10. In ’68, the label released “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” and it soared to Number One on all the trade charts.
What he has added to the archives of country music as a songwriter, however, will live on far beyond the prestigious accomplishments of the flesh-and-bones performer. In terms of style and material he has brought a dimension of lyrical depth and musical sophistication to country music that was heretofore unavailable. While the bulk of country song material of his time was dealing with the pangs of lost, found or unrequited love, Haggard was digging deep within his own emotional background and setting his dark and somber experience to music. Over the years Merle has become accepted as the bard of uncommon poems of the common working man, anthems born with dirt under their fingernails.
Merle’s early years of pain and tribulation provided him with infinite raw material to be spun into the rich imagery that is now indelibly imprinted on the idiom. His days outside the law were woven into “Lonesome Fugitive,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “Branded Man.” His understanding of his mother’s torment led to “Mama Tried” and “Hungry Eyes” while his affinity for the hourly laborer produced such as “Workin’ Man Blues” and “5:01 Blues.”