Marty Stuart: Merle Haggard Last Of The Kings

This appeared in The Clarion-Ledger - April 6, 2016

During the final days of March, country music legend Merle Haggard was informed by doctors he had about two weeks to live.

“He told them, ‘Naw, I don’t figure I’ll make it past my birthday,’ ” longtime friend Marty Stuart said. “Somehow, he knew.”

Haggard died Wednesday, his 79th birthday. He was diagnosed in 2008 with lung cancer.

“Country music has lost the final king from the old group of kings,” Stuart told The Clarion-Ledger by phone from Nashville. “He was one of my dearest friends for 25 years.

“It’s been a sad week for me. I lost my daddy a year ago this week. And now today we lost Merle. I guess some weeks are just like that, huh?”

Stuart, a country music star for the past four decades, said he and his wife, Connie Smith, would sing together at Haggard’s funeral in Redding, California. The day and time haven’t been determined.

Haggard, who was born in Oildale, California, had 40 No. 1 hits. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2010.

“I think his career went just the way he designed it,” said Stuart, who grew up in Mississippi’s Neshoba County. “I know (record labels) tried to push him toward pop, but he refused. He wanted to remain a voice for the common man.”

Haggard was 8 when his father died of a brain hemorrhage. His death deeply affected Haggard, who became rebellious. He was arrested several times through the years for theft and forgery. He eventually wound up in San Quentin Prison when he was 20. That is where he heard country icon Johnny Cash perform for the inmates. Already a guitarist, Haggard was inspired to pursue a career in music.

His list of hits include “Mama Tried,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” “Okie from Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Daddy Frank,” “If We Make It Through December,” “Movin’ On,” “The Way I Am,” and “I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”

During a 2011 concert in Jackson, current country star Miranda Lambert called Haggard “one of my heroes” and performed his hit “The Way I Am” as part of her encore.

By Billy Watkins

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