Country music legend Merle Haggard, who was known for hits like “Okie From Muskogee” and “Mama Tried,” died on his 79th birthday.
Haggard’s manager, Frank Mull, said the country icon died in Palo Cedro, California, of pneumonia that he had been battling for months. He had kept up an ambitious touring schedule, but the pneumonia in both lungs had forced him to cancel several shows this year.
Born outside of Bakersfield, California, in 1937, Haggard, the son of Oklahoma migrants, was raised in a converted railway boxcar, the only home his family could afford. Famous for his prison stint in San Quentin, Haggard said music was his only opportunity out of 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.”
The gruff, baritone-voiced singer became known for his classic tunes about drifters, convicts and blue collar workers, including “Workin’ Man Blues.” His tunes celebrated outlaws, underdogs and had an abiding sense of national pride. But he said back in 2014 that after writing some 700 songs, it’s hard to find a subject he hasn’t written about yet.
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 No. 1 hits.
Haggard — 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, Tenn., in the 1960s.
Haggard had lung surgery after a cancer diagnosis in 2008, and he said an early, but incorrect, diagnosis had him thinking he had only a short time to live.
The star said of the misdiagnosis, “It was sort of a disappointment. I was ready to go.”
FOX News and the Associated Press contributed to this report.