Local Current Blog

‘Outlaw country’ legend Merle Haggard dies at 79

Merle Haggard performs in 2015 (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for Big Barrel)

Country legend Merle Haggard has died today — his 79th birthday — of pneumonia, his manager confirms.

Haggard was one of the best-known purveyors of the Bakersfield Sound: a twangy alternative to the increasingly slick sound coming out of Nashville in the mid-20th century. Haggard rose to stardom in the early 1960s after a tumultuous youth that included an adolescence riding the rails and a series of run-ins with the law that led to a prison stint in the 1950s.

Inspired by Johnny Cash, Haggard became known for a hard-edged but wry sound that made him a force in the “outlaw country” movement. Early hits he wrote and performed include “Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde.” Ultimately, Haggard would achieve 38 number-one country hits, both solo and in collaboration with luminaries including Willie Nelson and Clint Eastwood.

His 1969 hit “Okie From Muskogee,” a reaction to the youth counterculture, became a signature song of the era, inspiring uncounted imitators. Haggard didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a spokesman of the “Silent Majority,” though. He garnered ever-growing respect as a songwriter, and by the 21st century it was clear that his legacy would be extensive and complex.

In recent years Haggard enjoyed a comeback, continuing to extensively tour and record. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, and his many other accolades include three Grammys and 2010 Kennedy Center Honors. When he was presented an honorary doctorate of music at California State University — Bakersfield in 2013, Haggard said, “Thank you. It’s nice to be noticed.”