Country music star Merle Haggard dies aged 79

Country music giant Merle Haggard, who celebrated outlaws, underdogs and an abiding sense of national pride in such hits as Okie From Muskogee and Sing Me Back Home, has died on his 79th birthday.

His manager Frank Mull said the country icon died in Palo Cedro, California, of pneumonia.

Flowers memorialize the death of Merle Haggard near his plaque in Nashville
(Erik Schelzig/AP)

The White House called Merle a "legend" and said President Barack Obama was sending his thoughts and prayers to the family. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Merle told stories that people from all walks of American life could relate to.

"His passing is a loss for country music, but obviously is a loss for all the people who got to know him personally, too," he said.

A masterful guitarist, fiddler and songwriter as well as singer, the Country Music Hall of Famer recorded for more than 40 years, releasing dozens of albums and number one hits.

Merle Haggard
(Matt Sayles/AP)

Merle - along with fellow California country star Buck Owens - was a founder of the twangy Bakersfield Sound, a direct contrast to the smooth, string-laden country records popular in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1960s.

His music was rough yet sensitive, reflecting on childhood, marriage and daily struggles, telling stories of shame and redemption, or just putting his foot down in The Fightin' Side Of Me and I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink.

His most beloved songs included the prison ballad Sing Me Back Home, the tributes to his mother Mama Tried and Hungry Eyes, the romantic lament Today I Started Loving You Again and such blue collar chronicles as If We Make It Through December and Workin' Man Blues.

Few faces in country were as recognisable as Merle's, with its wary, sideways glance and chiselled, haunted features that seemed to bear every scar from his past.

General audiences knew him best for Okie From Muskogee, a patriotic anthem released in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam war that quickly became a cultural touchstone for its anti-hippie lyrics proclaiming: "We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street; we like living right and being free."

Okie From Muskogee made him a hero among conservatives, but he softened on the counter-culture and released the lighthearted Big Time Annie's Square, a tribute to a hippie girl and her "crazy world".

Merle Haggard in 1974

More recently, he was a backer of prominent Democrats. In 2007 he unveiled a song to promote Hillary Clinton and two years later he penned Hopes Are High to commemorate Obama's inauguration. In America First, he even opposed the Iraq war, singing: "Let's get out of Iraq, and get back on track."

In 1970, Merle was named entertainer of the year by the Country Music Association, and Okie From Muskogee won best album and single. The number one hits Mama Tried and Workin' Man Blues also broke into the charts around that time, sealing his reputation as one of country's defining voices. He picked up another CMA album of the year in 1972 for Let Me Tell You About A Song.

He referred to the improvisations of his band, the Strangers, as "country jazz", and in 1980, became the first country artist to appear on the cover of the jazz magazine Downbeat.

He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, the year he won a Grammy for best male country vocal performance in That's the Way Love Goes.

Merle also began headlining at Farm Aid, the benefit founded by his long-time friend Willie Nelson, and started touring with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

Along with his albums of original songs, he recorded tributes to such early influences as country pioneer Jimmy Rodgers and Western swing king Bob Wills, and paired up with Nelson and George Jones among others. He also resisted the slick arrangements favoured by some pop-country stars.

"I'll tell you what the public likes more than anything," he told the Boston Globe in 1999. "It's the most rare commodity in the world - honesty."

The Byrds, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Grateful Dead, Emmylou Harris, Dwight Yoakam, Lucinda Williams and Reba McEntire all covered his songs, while many others paid tribute to him in theirs.

In the Dixie Chicks' Long Time Gone, which criticises Nashville trends, the trio crooned: "We listen to the radio to hear what's cookin', But the music ain't got no soul, Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard."

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