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Remembering Merle Haggard, an authentic honky-tonk hero

MERLE HAGGARD, the outlaw hero and ornery individualist unmatched in country-music history as a triple-threat singer, songwriter and bandleader who combined common-man eloquence with intrepid musical adventurousness, died on Wednesday. It was his 79th birthday.

Merle Haggard performs at the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas on March 10, 2007.
Merle Haggard performs at the Aladdin Theater for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas on March 10, 2007.Read moreAP Photo/Laura Rauch

Merle Haggard, the outlaw hero and ornery individualist unmatched in country music history as a triple-threat singer, songwriter, and bandleader who combined common-man eloquence with intrepid musical adventurousness, died Wednesday. It was his 79th birthday.

The country icon was a living, breathing, still-hard-touring exemplar of unvarnished honky-tonk authenticity. He was revered, along with George Jones, who died in 2013, as a baritone singer of extraordinary sensitivity and feeling.

Mr. Haggard scored 38 No. 1 country hits between 1966 and 1987, including "Mama Tried," "Workin' Man Blues," and "Okie From Muskogee."

His manager, Frank Mull, said Mr. Haggard died of pneumonia at home in Palo Cedro, in north-central California.

The singer - whose Django and Jimmy, his sixth collaborative album with Willie Nelson (Nelson called Mr. Haggard "my brother and my friend" on Wednesday), topped the country album chart in 2015 - had been battling the respiratory illness, which had caused him to cancel many shows over the last year.

"A week ago, Dad told us he was going to pass on his birthday, and he wasn't wrong," Mr. Haggard's son Ben, who played in his father's band, posted on Facebook Wednesday. "An hour ago he took his last breath surrounded by family and friends."

Mr. Haggard's early life was the stuff of a country music song written by Merle Haggard. His parents moved from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression, and he was raised in a converted boxcar in Bakersfield. He later came to define that city's electric, Fender Telecaster-powered country sound along with fellow innovator Buck Owens.

When Mr. Haggard was 9, his father died, and five years later, the virtual only child - the sibling nearest his age was 14 years his senior - ran away from home with a friend. They rode the rails to Texas in search of western swing king Bob Wills, the musical hero who inspired Mr. Haggard's 1970 album, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, which he recorded after spending three years teaching himself the instrument.

In 1958, Mr. Haggard began serving a two-year jail sentence for attempting to rob a Bakersfield bar. That same year, he saw Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin Prison, an experience that shaped later hits such as "Sing Me Back Home." He was paroled in 1960 - Gov. Ronald Reagan gave him a full pardon in 1972 - and the great songwriter had his first hits with Wynn Stewart's "Sing a Sad Song" in 1964, followed the next year by Liz Anderson's "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," which gave a name to the superb, freewheeling band, the Strangers, that Mr. Haggard led on stage - without a set list - for the next five decades.

Till his death, Mr. Haggard's best-known song remained "Okie From Muskogee," a 1969 hippie-mocking crossover hit that gave voice to the Nixonian "Silent Majority" at a time of Vietnam War turmoil. "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee," Mr. Haggard sang. "We like livin' right, and bein' free."

Mr. Haggard sometimes defended the song and sometimes called it a misunderstood joke. His politics were always contrarian and not easily co-opted. He hoped to follow up "Okie" with "Irma Jackson," which condemned small-minded intolerance of interracial marriage. Instead, his label issued the belligerent "The Fightin' Side of Me."

In 2010, after receiving Kennedy Center Honors, the 1994 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee lashed into critics of President Obama: "It's really almost criminal what they do with our president. There seems to be no shame."

In a 1999 interview with the Inquirer, Mr. Haggard said of the Strangers: "I don't think 'country music' describes us at all. We play country music, we play it with pride, and we play it damn good. But a lot of what we do is more like po'boy jazz. It's the unschooled player trying to play like Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden and Stéphane Grappelli and Django."

That interview took place at QVC studios in West Chester, where Mr. Haggard had traveled by bus to sell a boxed set of his music on television, and where he needed a touch of Tennessee whiskey in his tea to loosen his voice.

That day, he described himself as "like a gunfighter without a pistol" when not holding a guitar. "I'm unequipped without it," he said. "I think that's where I really should be. Up on stage."

Mr. Haggard was married five times, including once to country singer (and longtime Strangers backing vocalist) Bonnie Owens. He had a total of six children, four from his first marriage, and two from his last.