Country's original outlaw Merle Haggard dies at 79

3 min

New York (AFP)

Country music legend Merle Haggard, an outlaw in both song and life who gave voice to the hippie era's disaffected conservatives but moderated his views, died Wednesday on his 79th birthday.

Haggard, who had recently returned to tour despite repeated bouts with illness, died from complications of pneumonia at his home in northern California, a representative said.

Tributes poured in from across the music world for Haggard, who released a staggering amount of work over six decades with more than 30 songs that topped the US country charts.

"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," singer Dolly Parton said in a statement.

Willie Nelson, a collaborator of Haggard who is the best-known living star of the outlaw country genre, wrote on Facebook that the late singer was "my brother, my friend."

Haggard had the greatest impact with his 1969 hit "Okie from Muskogee," which became an anthem of sorts for the counterculture to the counterculture who had become so prominent among US youth.

The title -- a reference to a slang for a person from the conservative Plains state of Oklahoma, in which Muskogee is a small city -- sings of pride in the US flag and the war against communism in Vietnam.

"We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee / We don't take no trips on LSD / We don't burn no draft cards down on Main Street / But we love living right and being free," he sings in the opening lines.

While the song became an anthem in the US culture wars, Haggard himself later described "Okie from Muskogee" as an attempt to understand heartland America rather than a statement of his own principles.

He more recently has been an avowed supporter of Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, even writing a song for her campaign in 2007 with the line, "Let's put a woman in charge."

Deeply affected by his father's death when he was a child, Haggard learned guitar as a youth and became involved in petty crime, landing in California's San Quentin prison for burglary and put in solitary confinement for brewing moonshine.

He credited a 1958 performance at the prison by legend Johnny Cash -- who later turned a concert at the jail into a celebrated album -- with inspiring him to pursue music.

Haggard's family hailed from Oklahoma but he was born and lived his life in California. The West Cost's diverse spirit influenced him musically, with Haggard adopting pop and especially blues on his guitar.

Haggard in his later years was also outspoken about what he saw as the decline of country music, accusing the Nashville-based industry of churning out shallow, formulaic songs.