Country Music Legend Merle Haggard Dead at 79

(Image credit: Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images)

Country music legend Merle Haggard—a creator of the Bakersfield Sound and one of the most influential country artists of the modern era, died today (April 6), his 79th birthday, in Palo Cedro, California.

Haggard's manager, Frank Mull, told several news outlets that Haggard died of pneumonia, which he'd been battling for months. He still kept up an ambitious touring schedule, but the pneumonia—which was in both lungs—had forced him to cancel several shows, including two nights at Nashville's venerable Ryman Auditorium that were originally scheduled for March.

Haggard recorded more than 40 Number 1 singles and wrote scores of songs that have been covered by the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, Vince Gill, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, the Grateful Dead and many more.

Born outside of Bakersfield, California, to Oklahoma migrants James and Flossie Haggard on April 6, 1937, Haggard was raised in a converted railway boxcar, the only home his family could afford. Famous for his prison stay in San Quentin, California, Haggard said music was his only way out of dire poverty.

"My decisions have been easy," he told the Associated Press in 2014. "It was either back in the cotton patch or go to work in the oil fields. ... They didn't compare with music. I was able to make more money in a beer joint when I first started than I was digging ditches."

When Haggard was 21, he was sent to San Quentin State Prison following a burglary attempt. While he was there, he saw Johnny Cash perform. Upon his release in 1960, Haggard was determined to turn his life around. He got involved in the Bakersfield music scene alongside Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart. In 1962, he released his debut single, “Skid Row.” His second single, “Sing Me a Sad Song,” was written by Stewart. It became Haggard’s first Top 20 hit for Tally Records.

From the mid-1960s through the Seventies, Haggard released one top-notch song after another, a string of hits that are now an integral part of the country music canon. Many singles topped the charts, beginning in 1965 with “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.”

His last proper solo album, Working in Tennessee, was released in 2011. Last year, he released two more "joint project" albums—one with Mac Wiseman and another with Willie Nelson.

In the photo above, Haggard is seen playing his stunning signature Fender Telecaster, which was created by the Fender Custom Shop several years ago.

The guitar is desribed as follows: "The Hag’s signature tribute Telecaster guitar is a modified Telecaster Thinline featuring select alder wings with tone chambers, laminated figured maple top, maple center block, set-neck with deep-carved heel, Ivoroid pickguard and binding, gold hardware, abalone Tuff-Dog Telecaster headstock inlay, Texas Special Telecaster pickups and custom four-way switching."

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