Country music legend Merle Haggard, best known for hits such as "Okie from Muskogee" and "Mama Tried," passed away earlier today, on his birthday, at the age of 79. The musician's manager confirmed the singer and actor's death to the Associated Press . Merle Haggard's health had been failing in recent months, as he battled double pneumonia. He was forced to cancel a number of concerts over the past few months due to his health. The musician's son, Ben Haggard, released a statement on his Facebook page earlier today, revealing that his father had actually predicted he would die on his birthday.
"A week ago dad told us he was gonna pass on his birthday, and he wasn't wrong. A hour ago he took his last breath surrounded by family and friends. He loved everything about life and he loved that everyone of you gave him a chance with his music. He wasn't just a country singer. He was the best country singer that ever lived."
Merle Haggard was born on April 6, 1937 in Oildale, California, a Depression-era town filled with transplants from the Midwest trying to start a new life. His parents were from Oklahoma, having moved to California just three years before their son was born. The singer's father died from a brain tumor when he was just nine years old, and soon thereafter, Merle Haggard became a repeat juvenile offender, committing crimes such as petty theft and writing fraudulent checks. He spent his teenage years drifting throughout the Southwest, hopping trains and taking on odd jobs, meeting a number of colorful characters that ended up influencing his music.
In 1957, at the age of 20, he was thrown in jail for breaking into a road house, and he was transferred to San Quentin Prison. Two years later, he watched Johnny Cash perform his infamous New Year's Day concert at the prison, a moment which he credited for helping to turn his life around. His first single, which helped introduce the Bakersfield Sound he became famous for, sold just 200 copies, but his second, "Sing Me a Sad Song," landed at #19 on the Billboard Country charts, landing him a record deal with Capitol. He released 38 number 1 hit singles throughout his career, which spanned more than 65 albums, and he had a stretch between 1966 and 1987 where he always had at least one song on the Billboard Top 5. Here's what his longtime friend and country legend Dolly Parton had to say in her statement regarding Merle Haggard's death to Entertainment Weekly.
"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. Rest easy, Merle."
CMT announced today that they will pay tribute to the singer with a new special CMT Remembers Merle Haggard, airing tonight at 8:30/7:30c. The special will include footage and interviews that previously haven't been seen before, along with some of his most iconic performances. The late singer himself will also provide commentary along with country music stars Miranda Lambert, Toby Keith, Florida Georgia Line, Vince Gill, Wynonna Judd, Dwight Yoakam, Brooks & Dunn and Bobby Bare. Tomorrow, the network will air "All Merle, All Day" programming on both CMT and CMT music. AXS TV will also air Dan Rather's The Big Interview segment with the singer on Friday, April 8 at 11:30 AM.
Merle Haggard also acted in a number of movies, such as Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Killers Three, From Nashville with Music, The Legend of the Lone Ranger and Wag the Dog. He also had appearances on TV shows such as The Waltons and Centennial. Take a look at some of the reactions that have been flooding in from Twitter since news broke of Merle Haggard's death.
Love and prayers for the Haggard family. Merle was a pioneer...a true entertainer...a legend. There will never be another like him.— Carrie Underwood (@carrieunderwood) April 6, 2016
There are no words to describe the loss & sorrow felt within all of music with the passing of Merle Haggard. Thank God for his life & songs.— Brad Paisley (@BradPaisley) April 6, 2016
A true hero was lost today. Thank you for your contribution to not only country music but all music. @merlehaggard— Luke Bryan (@LukeBryanOnline) April 6, 2016
RIP Merle...you paved the way for so many. You had what we all hope for...a voice that matters and survives the ever changing trends.— Kip Moore (@KipMooreMusic) April 6, 2016
literally just fell to the floor. can't believe we lost the hag. rip merle haggard— Dierks Bentley (@DierksBentley) April 6, 2016
Saddened by the loss of Merle. We lost a bad ass man, a great poet! I love you Merle. Prayers for his family. R.I.P. #MerleHaggard— LeAnn Rimes Cibrian (@leannrimes) April 6, 2016
Pains me to say that country music icon @merlehaggard has passed away. So honored to have known him and shared the stage with him.— Josh Turner (@joshturnermusic) April 6, 2016
Rest in peace, Hag. One of a kind, and the definition of legend. pic.twitter.com/aUGX22Avna— Trisha Yearwood (@trishayearwood) April 6, 2016
Unbelievably sad to hear of Merle Haggard's passing. What a mark he left on country music. Forever grateful for that. ❤️— Cassadee Pope (@CassadeePope) April 6, 2016
I think I'll just stay here and drink. 💔— KACEY MUSGRAVES (@KaceyMusgraves) April 6, 2016
There will never be another artist like the Hag... Rest In Peace Merle Haggard— ChrisYoungMusic (@ChrisYoungMusic) April 6, 2016
We've lost an American original. RIP Merle Haggard. Today was his birthday too. ❤️❤️❤️ pic.twitter.com/8erKSIh6SA— Johnny Knoxville (@realjknoxville) April 6, 2016
RIP Merle Haggard. To All my friends in Sanford Fla we had many memories with Hag on in the background. Tonight play silver wings in salute— Larry The Cable Guy (@GitRDoneLarry) April 6, 2016
We lost a true hero today & I'm very sad to say a true friend.— Sturgill Simpson (@SturgillSimpson) April 6, 2016
I will always be eternally grateful.
My dear friend and one of country music's treasures @merlehaggard has just passed away. My deepest sympathy to his family.— TG Sheppard (@TGSheppardmusic) April 6, 2016