An ex-con turned troubadour, he was country's poet of the common man

By Eileen Finan and Lindsay Kimble
Updated April 06, 2016 01:40 PM
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Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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The “Okie from Muskogee” has died, according to multiple reports.

Merle Haggard, legendary country singer and songwriter, died on Wednesday, according to TMZ and the Associated Press. It was his 79th birthday.

The multiple Grammy, ACM and CMA Awards winner was battling double pneumonia – which he was diagnosed with last year – and died at his home near Redding, California, according to TMZ.

At the age of 20, Haggard sat locked up in a San Quentin cell for attempted burglary after years of defying the law. His music career seemed over before it began. “There was,” he later recalled to Parade in 2000, “no hope.” Then came a wake-up call in the form of a sobering week-long stint in solitary, and inspiration as he watched a visiting performer called Johnny Cash command the prison stage. “I charted a new course,” he said.

Just six years after his parole in 1960, Haggard, scored his first country No. 1 with “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” In less than a decade he equaled Cash in star status, eventually topping the country charts with 38 singles and establishing himself as one of the genre’s greatest songwriters. “I would’ve become a lifetime criminal if music hadn’t saved my ass,” he once remarked to Rolling Stone in 2009.

With a voice “so smooth it’s like whiskey,” as Miranda Lambert described it to PEOPLE in 2010, “he was an amazing troubadour for country music. He sang about real things: cheating and drinking and jail and his mama and trains. That’s what country music is about.”

And it’s what Haggard was about. Cash, who later became a close friend, once told him, “Hag, you’re the guy people think I am.” Songs like “Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home” and “Branded Man,” chronicled his hard times. “Country songs,” Haggard once said to TIME in 1974, “are just journalism put to music.”

His own story began in Bakersfield, California. Born to Jim and Flossie Haggard, Dust Bowl migrants from Oklahoma, Haggard grew up in a converted boxcar that his father, a carpenter for the railways, bought for $500. Music seemed to move him from the beginning. As an infant he’d wiggle his feet to the beat when country music played on the radio. At 11, when his brother gave him a used guitar, he learned to sing and play like an early musical hero, Texas singer Lefty Frizzell.

Though he joked the family “lived like The Beverly Hillbillies,” his early years were happy until his father died of a cerebral hemorrhage when Haggard was 9 years old. “Our life turned upside down,” Haggard told Parade. “It devastated me.”

The tragedy sent him on a spiral of truancy and petty crime, starting with his first arrest at 11, after hopping a freight train to Fresno, California. In all, he made 17 escape attempts from jails and juvenile halls.

Between run-ins with the law, he played low-rent bar gigs and married Leona Hobbs, a relationship described in his 1981 autobiography as one of “the great battles of history.” By the time the couple divorced in 1965, they had four children, two born while Haggard was behind bars. “I’ve never been able to be the father I wanted to be,” he told PEOPLE in 1997.

Amid his tumultuous homefront, Haggard’s star rose rapidly in the ’60s. Songs like “Hungry Eyes,” about the downtrodden – “The terminally luckless,” as he called them – made him a populist figure in the vein of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. “[He] has always been as deep as deep gets,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 2009. “Totally himself. Herculean.”

His status as counter-culture hero came to an abrupt end with 1969’s “Okie From Muskogee,” his biggest hit. Released days after Woodstock, the song confronted the free-love culture of the anti-war movement with lines like, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD/We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.”

In the years since, Haggard has both rejected the song, saying he was “dumb as a rock” when he wrote it, and defended it, calling it an honest representation of the times. Whatever the meaning, “Okie” and his follow-up single, the jingoistic “Fightin’ Side of Me,” convinced conservatives that Haggard was one of them. In 1972, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan gave him a full pardon for his crimes and the next year, Haggard played the White House for First Lady Pat Nixon’s birthday party. (He later admitted he was hung over for the performance).

But Haggard refused to be pinned down politically, once explaining, “Someone asked my mother, ‘Can you describe your son in a paragraph?’ She said, ‘I can in one word. Unpredictable.’ There are things I go for on both sides of the fence.” In 2008, he wrote a tune praising presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and he spoke admiringly of President Barack Obama, who presented Haggard with a Kennedy Center Honor in 2011.

After a series of rocky relationships, financial boom and bust and struggles with gambling and drug use, Haggard finally found the happiness at home with his fifth marriage to Theresa Lane. Haggard, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997, became a father again at the age of 54 with the birth of daughter Jenessa, and two years later he and Theresa had a son, Ben. The family lived on Haggard’s ranch in Northern California, where he fished for bass and gardened when he wasn’t touring.

“I guess I have to believe in miracles,” Haggard said in a 2000 interview of a life filled with second chances. “I know I’ve had more prayers answered than any man that ever lived.”