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Country icon Merle Haggard dead at 79

Associated Press Associated Press 6/04/2016

Country giant Merle Haggard, who rose from poverty and prison to international fame through his songs about outlaws, underdogs and an abiding sense of national pride in such hits as Okie From Muskogee and Sing Me Back Home, died Wednesday at 79, on his birthday.

Haggard's manager, Frank Mull, said the country icon died in Palo Cedro, California, of pneumonia that he had been battling for months. His publicist, Tresa Redburn, said no official cause of death has been determined.

He had kept up an ambitious touring schedule, but the pneumonia in both lungs had forced him to cancel several shows this year. Mull said his family was by his side when he died at home and they were planning a funeral for Saturday at his home.

A masterful guitarist, fiddler and songwriter as well as singer, the Country Music Hall of Famer with the firm, direct baritone recorded for more than 40 years, releasing dozens of albums and No. 1 hits.

"He was my brother, my friend. I will miss him," said Willie Nelson, his longtime friend, in a statement.

The White House called Haggard a "legend" and said President Barack Obama was sending his thoughts and prayers to Haggard's family. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Haggard told stories that people from all walks of American life could relate to.

"His passing is a loss for country music, but obviously is a loss for all the people who got to know him personally, too," Earnest said.

Haggard - along with fellow California country star Buck Owens - was a founder of the twangy Bakersfield Sound, a direct contrast to the smooth, string-laden country records popular in Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1960s.

His music was rough yet sensitive, reflecting on childhood, marriage and daily struggles, telling stories of shame and redemption, or just putting his foot down in The Fightin' Side of Me and I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink.

His most beloved songs included the prison ballad Sing Me Back Home, the tributes to his mother Mama Tried and Hungry Eyes, the romantic lament Today I Started Loving You Again and such blue collar chronicles as If We Make It Through December and Workin' Man Blues.

"We've lost one of the greatest writers and singers of all time. His heart was as tender as his love ballads," said Dolly Parton. "I loved him like a brother."

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