Outlaw Country Pioneer Merle Haggard Dead at 79

Musician Merle Haggard performs onstage during day one of 2015 Stagecoach, California's Country Music Festival.  (Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach)

Merle Haggard, a legend in country music and one of the inventors of the Bakersfield (CA) sound and Outlaw Country has died at the age of 79 on his birthday.

Haggard was born in Bakersfield, where his family had moved from Oklahoma. He spent time in juvenile detention centers and later at San Quentin, before releasing his first song in 1963. He had 40 #1 hits, won dozens of music awards, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.

Haggard had deep roots in California. Along with Buck Owens, Haggard and his band The Strangers developed the Bakersfield sound in the 1950s, a honky-tonk style that contrasted sharply with the slicker sound of country music made in Nashville. His song “I’m an Okie from Muskogee” became a conservative anthem in the late '60s, and then California Governor Ronald Reagan cleared Haggard’s criminal record with a pardon in 1972.

Bakersfield named a street for Haggard in 2008, and he'd been living for years in Northern California, near Shasta Lake.

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Haggard was a lifelong smoker, and doctors took out a parts of both lungs in 2009, after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. But Haggard kept recording and touring, his gravelly voice a bit weaker, perhaps.

He was hospitalized with pneumonia earlier this year, and had to cancel a series of tour dates this month, including some with Willie Nelson. Still Haggard had reportedly bought a new tour bus recently, over objections from his family.

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