To honor the country legend’s passing on Wednesday, check out a unique glimpse into Merle Haggard’s casual recording sessions with long-time collaborator Willie Nelson, for his final album, ‘Django And Jimmie’ released in June, 2015. (Watch the video above, posted one year ago by Nelson on YouTube.)
Country music legend Merle Haggard, who won international stardom by singing about his early life of poverty and prison, died Wednesday on his 79th birthday.
Manager Frank Mull confirmed to reporters that the man behind the hits "Okie from Muskogee," "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "If We Make It Through December" died at his home in Palo Cedro, California, on Wednesday morning.
Mr. Mull said he died surrounded by his family after a monthslong battle with pneumonia. Funeral services are planned for Saturday, he added.
Country star Travis Tritt tweeted out a picture of himself with Mr. Haggard and wrote, "He was more than a great talent. He was a gifted poet. What a huge inspiration he was to everyone! RIP Merle Haggard."
"We've lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads. I loved him like a brother. Rest easy, Merle," added Dolly Parton.
Presidential spokesman Josh Earnest praised Mr. Haggard's skill as a storyteller to whom Americans of every status could relate. "His passing is a loss for country music, but obviously is a loss for all the people who got to know him personally too," he said.
The White House said President Obama was sending his thoughts and prayers to the Haggard family.
Mr. Haggard had 38 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country charts and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994.
Despite his best-known song being about pride in being an "Okie," Mr. Haggard was born and raised near Bakersfield, California, though his extended family were Okies who left for California during the Dust Bowl era.
Indeed, he and Buck Owens are credited with developing what became known as the "Bakersfield sound," a more stripped-down country style than the polished, string-heavy hits that Nashville studios were producing in the 1960s.
An accomplished guitarist and fiddler, he continued writing and recording right up until his death, releasing a duet album in 2015 with fellow country music legend Willie Nelson.
"He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him," Mr. Nelson said in a statement.
His other hits included such standards as "Workin' Man Blues," "Mama Tried" and "Today I Started Loving You Again."
Mr. Haggard identified with the "outlaw" strain in country music and was often openly critical of modern "pop-friendly" trends in the genre.
His songwriting always has included large doses of painful autobiography. His father died when he was 9, he ran away from home at 14, was playing in honky-tonks at 16, and served three years in California's San Quentin State Prison for burglary. While serving time, he saw Johnny Cash play and decided to try his hand at country music once he was out.
His youthful wanderings helped inspire such tunes as "Mama Tried," with its famous (if somewhat exaggerated) refrain: "I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole."
Mr. Haggard was also proudly political, recording No. 1 pro-America hits at the height of the Vietnam War, such as "Okie" and "The Fightin' Side of Me." The former song said a point of Muskogee pride was not burning draft cards, while the latter song said that those who are "runnin' down my countrymen" are "walkin' on the fightin' side of me" and the now-iconic line "if you don't love it, leave it."
His hit "Workin' Man Blues" proclaimed that while he was struggling, "I ain't never been on welfare - that's one place I won't be."
In 2003 he wrote a hit song, "That's the News," attacking the media for its interest in celebrity news rather than the then-ongoing Iraq insurgency, the outgrowth of a war he opposed. Mr. Haggard even penned a song for Mr. Obama's inauguration.
Mr. Haggard married five times and had six children - four by his first wife, Leona Hobbs, and two by his last and current wife, Theresa Ann Lane.
Hank Williams Jr. said he remembered being on tour as a 15-year-old with Mr. Haggard and Waylon Jennings.
"They both were wondering which one of the two was going to make it. Well, they both made it," he said.