merle haggard

One of Merle Haggard's last major festival appearances was in September at the Riot Fest in Chicago's Douglas Park, where he played his signature Telecaster.

Photo by Chris Kies

The real-life country music outlaw championed the American underdog and the Bakersfield sound, believed in the evocative power of the guitar, and brandished a mean Telecaster along the way.

Merle Haggard, the great country singer, songwriter, and guitar player whose most enduring tales chronicled the often hardscrabble lives of American survivors, died on Wednesday, April 6, on his 79th birthday after cancelling several concerts due to double pneumonia. Haggard, who was also a lung cancer survivor, recorded 38 singles that reached No. 1 on the country charts between 1966 and 1987, including the enduring classics “Mama Tried," “Branded Man," “Hungry Eyes," “I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," “Today I Started Loving You Again," and Workin' Man Blues."

Many of his most memorable songs were buoyed by singing guitar hooks, essayed in crying bends and craftily picked melodies. He forged musical partnerships with several exceptional guitarists, including James Burton and Roy Nichols, who both played on “Mama Tried." Nichols toured and recorded with Haggard for more than 20 years, and by the time Nichols retired from Haggard's band, “Hag"—as he was known to his friends—was prepared to share in the lead guitar duties himself.

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