A scrappy rebel who became a singer/songwriter legend, country star Merle Haggard died Wednesday after a series of recent health struggles. Haggard’s manager confirmed to the Associated Press that the singer died around 9 a.m. in Palo Cedro, California. It was his 79th birthday.
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Haggard had canceled tour dates in December after he checked into a hospital with double pneumonia. He was hospitalized for two weeks and later canceled more tour dates scheduled for January 30 and 31. At the end of March, Haggard announced he was canceling all scheduled shows on doctor’s orders and had been in hospice care recently.
The country icon, born Merle Ronald Haggard in 1937, was revered as a country music icon and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. He was best known for his 1969 hit “Okie from Muskogee,” along with dozens of other No. 1 hits.
As an adolescent, Haggard was in and out of reform schools and ended up in jail as a young adult. Eventually, after a series of robberies, he was sentenced to a long stretch in San Quentin State Prison in California when he was 20 years old.
Haggard’s love of music began in prison, and he was captured on Johnny Cash’s iconic live album, “At San Quentin,” while he was an inmate, according to his official biography.
After his release, Haggard returned to his hometown of Bakersfield, California, and began to make a name for himself in the club scene. He developed his signature hard-charging approach to country music that featured twangy electric guitars. He released his first single, a cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song,” in 1964, but it was his own compositions that eventually made him famous and known as one of the most important and influential country artists of his generation, according to Taste of Country.
Haggard released a lot of deeply personal songs, including ” The Bottle Let Me Down,” and “Branded Man.” He quickly developed a reputation as one of the most serious, hard-hitting artists in the genre.
The country star continued his success through the 1970s and 1980s, scoring more hits, including “If We Make It Through December” and “Ramblin’ Fever.” He stayed active in his later years, touring regularly and releasing a new album, “Django & Jimmie,” with Willie Nelson in 2015. The album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Country Albums chart.
Unlike Haggard’s career, his personal life and health were less stable. He was married and divorced four times before marrying his fifth wife, Theresa Ann Lane, in 1993. In 1995, he underwent heart surgery to clear blocked arteries. In 2008, Haggard had part of his lung removed after he was diagnosed with lung cancer; he returned to the stage just months after his surgery. He remained an active performer until right before his death.
Haggard was honored as BMI Icon in 1996, and recognized at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2010. He won many ACM, CMA and Grammy awards, and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977.
Shortly after Haggard’s death, Ben Haggard, his son, posted a statement: “A week ago dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn’t wrong. An hour ago he took his last breath…”