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.