Merle Haggard, the prolific singer-songwriter who sang of his law-breaking Bakersfield youth and penned a seemingly effortless stream of natural, storytelling lyrics with vast popular appeal — nearly 100 of his songs made the Billboard charts — has died at his home near Redding, said his spokeswoman Tresa Redburn. He was 79.
The cause of death was not disclosed.
A Central Valley native and former San Quentin inmate, Haggard was considered one of the leading artists of Bakersfield’s honkytonk scene, and his stature in the country-music pantheon ranks with that of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
His biggest years stretched from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, during which he once had nine consecutive country No. 1 singles. But Haggard’s inborn, relentless creativity never flagged. He was still composing new songs long after his prodigious streak of hits subsided.
He owed some of his fame to conservative anthems, including the combative 1969 release “Okie from Muskogee,” which scorned San Francisco’s antiwar hippies.
But patriotic-pride and political songs make up a portion of the vast and diverse Haggard portfolio, which includes autobiographical laments, paens to working men, drinking songs and love songs. A Times critic described his ballads as “caked with the dust of hard-won experiences.”
In life Haggard was by no means the clean-cut square of the Muskogee song, about which he expressed mixed feelings (though after a hiatus, he eventually resumed singing it).
He had grown up a troublemaker — a teenage runaway who rode the rails and turned petty criminal. Sent to prison after a botched burglary attempt, he was among the inmates who watched Johnny Cash perform at San Quentin in 1958.
They broke the mold after they made that guy.