Music legend Merle Haggard dies on 79th birthday

By WND Staff

Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard

Country music legend Merle Haggard has died, passing away Wednesday – his 79th birthday – from complications following a recent bout of pneumonia.

With over three dozen No. 1 country hits to his credit over a nearly six-decade career, the singer continued to tour and perform until shortly before his death, only recently cancelling appearances scheduled for April due to illness.

Born in Oildale, California, just outside Bakersfield, in 1937, Haggard had a rough childhood, gravitating to crime following the death of his father when he was nine. The choices he made put him in San Quenton prison for two years and later helped shape his outlaw image as a musician.

“I was probably the most incorrigible child you could ever meet,” Haggard told NPR in 2009. “I was already on the way to prison before I realized it, actually. I was really kind of a screw-up.”

It was while in prison he heard Johnny Cash perform, an experience that helped push him toward a musical career for which he had already demonstrated talent.

In 1963, three years after leaving prison, he had his first song on the musical charts – “Sing a Sad Song” – and two years later topped the charts with “The Fugitive.” Haggard shunned Nashville, preferring to remain in Bakersfield where he developed his “Bakersfield” sound – a rough honkytonk twang that fit his everyman image.

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His best-known songs echoed his earlier troubled years and his patriotism. Songs such as “Mama Tried,” “Okie From Muskogee,” “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and “If We’re Not Back In Love By Monday” have been covered by other artist.

“Okie From Muskogee” became the anthem of America’s silent majority in 1969 as it watched the antiwar movement turn against traditional expressions of love for country.

“We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street, but we like living right and being free.”

The song spent four weeks atop the country chart.

His next single, “Fightin’ Side of Me,” continued the theme: “When you’re runnin’ down our country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”

In 1972, California Gov. Ronald Reagan granted Haggard a full pardon for his earlier crimes.

News of Haggard’s death spread quickly and drew responses from other country musicians.

Dolly Parton: “We’ve lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads. I loved him like a brother. Rest easy, Merle.”

Charlie Daniels: “Country music has suffered one of the greatest losses it will ever experience. Rest in peace Merle Haggard.”

Carrie Underwood: “Love and prayers for the Haggard family. Merle was a pioneer … a true entertainer … a legend. There will never be another like him.”

Willie Nelson: “He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him.”

Haggard was aware his health was fading quickly and only a week ago told his son, Ben Haggard, he would die on his upcoming birthday.

“He loved everything about life and he loved that everyone of you gave him a chance with his music,” the younger Haggard posted on his Facebook page Wednesday. “He wasn’t just a country singer. He was the best country singer that ever lived.”

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