(NBC News) – Merle Haggard, the country music outlaw who lived the life he sang about in his songs, died Wednesday on his 79th birthday after losing a battle with double-pneoumonia.
His death at his home near Redding, California was confirmed by his manager in an interview with NBC affiliate WSMV.
Haggard, best-known for songs like the anti-hippie anthem “Okie From Muskogee,” “Mama Tried” and “Workin’ Man Blues,” had been sick for some time.
He had just canceled his April concert dates as he recovered from a recurring bout of double pneumonia. He had also nixed dates in February and March.
Born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California — inside a refurbished railroad boxcar — Haggard’s life had all the elements of a classic country song.
There were troubles with the law (he did time in San Quentin Prison as a young man for attempted robbery), troubles with women (he was married five times), there were dead-end jobs (he dug ditches to support himself when he launched his musical career), and other struggles.
But Haggard also waved the flag at a time when that was considered “square,” most famously in his first and biggest 1969 hit in which he declared himself proud to be an Okie and sang lyrics like, “We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street / We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.”
Haggard could lay claim to Oklahoma because his parents had moved to California during the Great Depression to escape the Dust Bowl.
Losing his father at age 9, Haggard had a rough-and-tumble childhood marked by frequent run-ins with police. He was in solitary when he turned 21, an event that became the inspiration for his song “Mama Tried.”
“Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied,” he sang. “That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.”
But prison was also where Haggard was inspired to follow his musical muse after seeing Johnny Cash perform in 1958, They two men later performed together.
Haggard, however, had little patience with polished Nashville country music, favoring a style that grew out of the honky-tonk bars which relied heavily on the twang of Fender Telecaster guitars and came to be known as the Bakersfield Sound.
He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994