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If the question were asked, “Who forged the genre known today as modern country music?” only a tiny group of country immortals could step forward to share the spotlight.
One, out of that select handful, would be Merle Haggard. After 65 albums, more than 40 No. 1 hit singles, more than 50 awards from just about everybody, his status as living and ongoing legend is secure. He’s back by popular demand following his sold-out performances over the last two seasons at Harris Center for the Arts.
Haggard’s life path has never been easy nor has much of it been pretty, as aired in his 1981 book, “Sing Me Back Home.”
His childhood years were spent in Bakersfield and the death of his father, when Merle was just 9 years old, became the catalyst that led to a squandered youth.
At the same time, his love for the wandering songs of Jimmie Rodgers, led to an errant passion for the gleaming, endless railroad tracks and the siren song of slow freights and hobo jungles and, along the way, to numerous brushes with the law.
Incarceration for three years in San Quentin Penitentiary became the experience that finally changed his perspective and the spark that turned his head around. He abruptly assumed the role of a model prisoner and was paroled in 1960. Over a decade later in 1972, California’s Governor Ronald Reagan granted him a full pardon.
He was signed by Tally Records, owned by close friend Lewis Tally, and began cutting singles in a garage behind Tally’s house.
His 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 20 of Billboard’s country charts with his first national hit, “Sing A Sad Song.” Since then the country charts have been his second home.
He received eight Grammy Nominations and won Best Country Vocal Performance for “That’s The Way Love Goes” in 1984.
To date he has written hundreds of songs, including the classics “Sing Me Back Home,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” and “Silver Wings” among others. The former “B” side, “Today I Started Loving You Again,” has been recorded by more than 400 artists to date.
Fifty-six of his songs have received awards from BMI and three of his songs,“Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Okie From Muskogee” and “Big City,” have logged more than a million plays.
He has released more than 65 albums, most of which have charted in the major trade publications; four of his albums have been certified gold. He has been nominated 42 times for CMA awards.
His band, the Strangers, has become known as one of country music’s finest road bands. They have been the recipients of a number of industry accolades, including being eight-time winners of the Academy of Country Music’s Touring Band of the Year Award and a pair of Music City News awards for Band of the Year. The band has also recorded several albums of its own.
It would be difficult to find an artist as creative, as successful and as stubbornly true to himself as Haggard.
In between his hits, he made albums that paid tribute to the musicians who influenced him, like Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills — done out of respect rather than commercial calculation. He blended elements of jazz, rock, blues and folk music into his arrangements, while staying true to the traditions of country.
No matter what the current fashion of the moment was in music, Haggard always went his own way.
“I’ll tell you what the public likes more than anything,” he told the Boston Globe, “It’s the most rare commodity in the world — honesty.”
Merle Haggard and the Strangers will perform at Harris Center, 10 College Parkway in Folsom, on Tuesday, June 3 and Wednesday, June 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are $49 to $69 with premium $79. Tickets are available online at harriscenter.net or from the Harris Center ticket office at 916-608-6888 from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and two hours before show time. Parking is included in the price of the ticket.