Country music star Merle Haggard dead at 79

Wed Apr 6, 2016 3:47pm EDT
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By Bill Trott

(Reuters) - Country musician Merle Haggard, who emerged from prison to become the poetic voice of the American working man with hits such as "Mama Tried" and "If We Make It Through December," died on Wednesday, his 79th birthday, said manager Frank Mull.

Haggard died of pneumonia at his home in Palo Cedro, California, Mull said.

The country legend had canceled all his concerts for the month of April due to illness. His son Ben, who played lead guitar in Haggard's band, said his father had predicted the day of his death.

"A week ago, Dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn't wrong," Ben wrote on Facebook. "An hour ago he took his last breath surrounded by family and friends."

Haggard became one of the most influential figures in country music with a repertoire that included songs with traditional country themes such as drinking and heartache, but he infused them with more insight and tenderness than most honky-tonkers. He also broadened the genre by writing about poverty, loneliness and social issues.

Haggard once said he preferred playing guitar to singing but it was his voice that made him stand out.

"Haggard's exceptionally true intonation, his command of varied vocal textures and his insinuating phrasing would make him a superior vocalist in any idiom," the New York Times said of Haggard in his prime. "Like Muddy Waters in the blues field and only a handful of other performers, he both embodies and transcends his rich American musical heritage."

Haggard's sound drew from traditional country but also touched on folk, pop, jazz, blues and rock, and his songs were covered by the likes of the Grateful Dead, Elvis Costello and Lynyrd Skynyrd.   Continued...

Merle Haggard performs at the 56th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California January 26, 2014.   REUTERS/ Mario Anzuoni