Merle Haggard, country music legend, dies at 79

Country Legend Merle Haggard Dies at Age 79

Country legend Merle Haggard, often called "the Poet of the Common Man," whose music reflected his hardscrabble roots and hard-living ways as well as a tenderness that made him a revered songwriter, died Wednesday at his home near Redding, Calif. He was 79.

The Associated Press confirmed his death.

Haggard along with fellow Bakersfield, Calif., superstar Buck Owens defined the West Coast sound of country music in the 1960s and '70s.

See Merle Haggard through the years:

Merle Haggard through the years
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Merle Haggard, country music legend, dies at 79
FORT WORTH, TX - JULY 3: Merle Haggard performs a 4th of July concert at Billy Bob's, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Brooks/DAL/Voice Media Group via Getty Images)
CIRCA 1964: Country musician Merle Haggard poses for a mid 1960's portrait. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
CIRCA LATE 1960s: Country musician Merle Haggard poses for a late 1960's portrait. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
American country music performer Merle Haggard smiles as he plays an acoustic guitar, 1970. (Photo by Lynn Pelham/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Merle Haggard Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Merle Haggard Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
THE JOHNNY CASH SHOW - Airdate: December 2, 1970. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) MERLE HAGGARD
NEW YORK: Merle Haggard performs live on stage in New York in 1978 (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)
Merle Haggard performs at Countryside Opry, Chicago, Illinois, October 31, 1980. (Photo by Kirk West/Getty Images)
Singer and musician Merle Haggard performs, Fresno, California, April 19, 1986. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 01: Merle Haggard performs on stage at the Country Music Festival held at Wembley Arena, London in April 1988. (Photo by David Redfern/Redferns)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 28: Merle Haggard attends 18th Annual American Music Awards on January 28, 1991 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Meryl Haggard during Merle Haggard in Concert at Tramps - June 23, 1993 at Tramps in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Steve Eichner/WireImage)
Merle Haggard performs at Tramps, New York, June 23, 1993. (Photo by Steve Eichner/Getty Images)
Merle Haggard on 10/27/96 in Chicago,Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage) *** Local Caption ***
Merle Haggard on 10/27/96 in Chicago,Il. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)
Country music singer Merle Haggard came to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History today to donate (with his sister Lillian Hoge) personal family items from the dust-bowl era. (Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - 2004: Merle Haggard performs at the Ryman Auditorium in 2004 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)
Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Toby Keith during Willie Nelson and Friends: 'Outlaws & Angels' - Show and Backstage at Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by L. Cohen/WireImage for NBC Universal Photo Department)
John Anderson and Merle Haggard during 54th Annual BMI Country Awards - Arrivals at BMI Offices in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. (Photo by Rick Diamond/WireImage for BMI Nashville)
MANCHESTER, TN - JUNE 14: Musician Merle Haggard performs during the 2009 Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival on June 14, 2009 in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Gary Miller/WireImage)
Merle Haggard arrives at the 2nd Annual ACM Honors at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on September 22, 2009 in Nashville Tennessee.
Portrait of musician Merle Haggard, Napa, California, 2010. (Photo by Chris Felver/Getty Images)
Merle Haggard poses for a portrait November 6, 2010, in Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Photo by Dave Einsel For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 05: Merle Haggard poses for a photo during the 33rd Annual Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center Hall of States on December 5, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 3985 -- Pictured: Musical guest Merle Haggard on February 8, 2011 (Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
ALBUQUERQUE, NM - OCTOBER 21: Merle Haggard performs one of his many top-selling country songs at Route 66 Casinoâs Legends Theater on October 21, 2011 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Photo by Steve Snowden/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 10: Merle Haggard performs at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens on August 10, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Chris McKay/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 26: Singer Merle Haggard attends the 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 11: Singer-songwriter Merle Haggard performs in concert at ACL Live on November 11, 2014 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/WireImage)

Emerging from the central California city's raucous honky-tonky country music scene of the post WWII-era, first recording for the local Tally label and then for Capitol Records, Haggard became a towering figure, producing 38 chart-topping records along with his longtime recording and touring band, the Strangers. Among his biggest hits were the controversial "Okie From Muskogee" — alternately seen as a reactionary Nixon-era anthem or a good-hearted spoof of heartland mores — as well as enduring and much-covered ballads such as "Today I Started Loving You Again," "If We Make It Through December," "Sing Me Back Home" and "Hungry Eyes." His uptempo "drinking" songs such as "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Swingin' Doors," "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" and "Working Man Blues" helped create the prototype of 1960s and '70s country honky-tonk hits.

Two of his best-regarded albums were tributes to early country star Jimmie Rodgers ("Same Train, A Different Time," 1969) and Western swing bandleader Bob Wills ("A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World," 1970).

Haggard scored with several film and TV hits over the years, most notably penning and singing the eponymous theme song for the 1974 TV series "Movin' On," as well as chart-toppers "Barroom Buddies" and "Misery and Gin" for Clint Eastwood's film "Bronco Billy." "Mama Tried" was featured in the crime film "Killers Three," in which Haggard also co-starred.

Haggard was born in Oildale, Calif., to Oklahoma immigrants who migrated west during the Great Depression, and he quite literally grew up in a boxcar, albeit one converted into a home. His father died when Haggard was 9, and in his early life he committed a series of petty crimes, leading to longer and longer incarcerations. But Haggard was also gaining a reputation in the Bakersfield area as a first-rate singer and instrumentalist. Holding his own onstage with his idol, country music great Lefty Frizzell, was an indication of the career ahead of him, once he put crime and punishment behind him.

A botched robbery, however, saw him tried as an adult and sent to San Quentin, where he spent three years. Haggard recalled that seeing Johnny Cash onstage in San Quentin in 1958 was a particular inspiration, and the two men later became close friends and mutual fans.

Once out of prison, Haggard worked blue-collar day jobs and played the rowdy honky-tonks of Bakersfield at night, which led to him cutting several tracks for Tally.

Haggard's first released song was the minor hit "Skid Row." A cover of country superstar Wynn Stewart's "Sing a Sad Song" charted nationally in 1964. The following year he had his first national top-10 record with "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," followed in 1966 by his first No. 1 song, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive."

Haggard, in a 1999 interview with Variety, described his rise as he moved from local music sensation to national star after signing with Capitol Records: "We had this little label in Bakersfield (Tally) that we were doing pretty good on. About 1964, I think it was, we sold forty-something-thousand records out of our apartment back before the interweb (sic) and all that shit. So Capitol called us and said, 'Don't you think it's time you let us help you?'

"They were also disappointed in everything but the Beatles. There was nothing in the world selling except Beatle music. Every country act in the entire fucking world had just got fired. And it just so happened that during that really strange Beatlemania I got a goddamn hit."

The '60s and '70s were Haggard's peak period creatively and professionally. Haggard scored hits for three labels — Capitol, Epic and MCA — before turning to independent label status in the late '90s. He briefly returned to Capitol (via its Nashville division) in the new millennium, and released a collaborative album with Willie Nelson, "Django and Jimmie," through Sony Legacy in 2015; the latter set reached No. 1 on the country chart and No. 7 on the pop side.

While Haggard's stature as one of the music industry's top acts grew over the decades, his personal life endured rocky patches. As his two autobiographies attest, the much-married and divorced Haggard struggled with alcohol and drug dependencies well into the '90s, when health and financial problems took him to medical rehabilitation and an IRS lien proceeding decimated his ownership of dozens of hits in his valuable song catalog.

Haggard described his strategy for creative and financial survival during that difficult time to Variety in 1999, noting, "Making records is something I guess I'll always do, because of the fact that I'm a songwriter."

Between 1965 and 1974 Haggard scored 11 Academy of Country Music honors as well as four top Country Music Assn. honors.

He won two competitive Grammys, as well as a spot in the Grammy Hall of Fame for his song "Mama Tried." He was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977 and was a Kennedy Center Honors inductee in 2010.

Haggard is survived by his wife Theresa Ann Lane; their children Jenessa and Ben Haggard, the latter of whom served as lead guitarist in the Strangers for several years; and his children from previous marriages, Marty, Noel, Dana and Kelli. Married five times, his second and third wives were stage and recording partners Bonnie Owens and Leona Williams.

Also see how stars reacted to Haggard's death:

Stars react to Merle Haggard's death
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Merle Haggard, country music legend, dies at 79
There are no words to describe the loss & sorrow felt within all of music with the passing of Merle Haggard. Thank God for his life & songs.
Nobody ever sang a song with the heart and emotion that @merlehaggard did. No wonder it's raining today. Even God is crying.
My dear friend and one of country music's treasures @merlehaggard has just passed away. My deepest sympathy to his family.
extremely sad to hear of the passing of one of the greatest of all time Mr. Merle Haggard...
rip @merlehaggard thank you for all the great music u blessed us with. we will play it forever
literally just fell to the floor. can't believe we lost the hag. rip merle haggard
RIP @merlehaggard. One of my favorite interviews for @TODAYshow
You are a cornerstone of country music @merlehaggard...u will be missed greatly. Praying for the Haggard family. 💔
My heart is absolutely broken in two at the news of the loss of Merle Haggard. We keep losing all of the good ones. What a sad, sad day...
We've lost an American original. RIP Merle Haggard. Today was his birthday too. ❤️❤️❤️
Pains me to say that country music icon @merlehaggard has passed away. So honored to have known him and shared the stage with him.
Country music has suffered one of the greatest losses it will ever experience Rest in peace Merle Haggard
Play hard, work harder was a lesson I learned from @merlehaggard & my dad. Rest In Peace Merle The world cries today
Happy Birthday to our hero... @merlehaggard
sending lots of love to @merlehaggard on his birthday hoping u feel better Hag! #countrymusic #Legend
Praynig for the family, friends & fans of @MerleHaggard. A legend! #GodBlessMerle #RIPMerle
RIP Merle music legend
BREAKING: Merle Haggard passes away at 79.
We've lost a giant. No words for what @merlehaggard's music meant to me. I know his mind is now untangled forever.
Hard to believe the news about Merle Haggard. Working with him is something I'll never forget & will cherish forever
my heart just sank. so so sad to hear about the passing of Merle Haggard. He changed Country Music and my life forever.
We lost one of the best today. Rest in peace Merle Haggard.... You will be missed
RIP Merle Haggard. Everyone spend some time today listening to Merle. One of the greatest ever.
I sure hope this Merle Haggard death is fake.
Country music lost one the legends today.. Rest easy Merle Haggard. Truly one of greatest songwriters of all time.. So sad
Goodbye Merle Haggard... Gone too soon. May the outlaw live on ✨
Merle Haggard’s passing is just depressing. Him, Waylon, and Willie provided the soundtrack to all my family events. via @youtube RIP The greatest country singer, period
Heartbroken. #MerleHaggard
So bummed to hear about Merle Haggard. Was hoping to see him one last time #TonightTheBottleLetMeDown RIP, Merle
Devastated that our hero @MerleHaggard passed away. He’s the reason we fell in love with music. We’ll miss you Merle
#RIP Merle Haggard. #respect. Might drink a little beer at a tavern sing a little bit of them workin' man blues.
A birthday to be cherished in heaven. @merlehaggard and @gjpossum are kicking out the footlights again. RIP Merle.
RIP Merle Haggard. To All my friends in Sanford Fla we had many memories with Hag on in the background. Tonight play silver wings in salute
Just heard the legendary Merle Haggard has passed away. One of the all time all time greats. #SilverWings
Thank you @merlehaggard for inspiring generations of music. You are a legend and will truly missed #MerleHaggArd
Merle Haggard is the reason I do what I do. I can’t believe he’s gone.
We have lost one of the greatest ever @merlehaggard You will be missed but the impact you've…
Sad day for country music! Merle Haggard is the greatest of all time...period! RIP Merle
Merle Haggard Your name will be honored. Your music celebrated. Your legacy never forgotten. Country music will live on. I'll be sure of it.
I have are request.... could all the Country Radio Stations please play Merle Haggard ... Thank you

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