Country legend Merle Haggard dies at 79 of pneumonia

In this May 28, 2003 file photo, country music legend Merle Haggard smiles during a news conference at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington where he and his sister Lillian Haggard Hoge donated belongings taken on their family's Dust Bowl-era move from Oklahoma to California on Route 66. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Country giant Merle Haggard, who rose from poverty and prison to international fame though 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. He had kept up an ambitious touring schedule, but the pneumonia in both lungs had forced him to cancel several shows this year.

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.

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.

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