Photography: WhiteHouse.gov
Photography: WhiteHouse.gov

The “poet of the common man” was honored at the White House in 2010.

We want to extend our condolences and best wishes to the fans, family, and friends of the great Merle Haggard, the legendary entertainer who spent many of his early days behind bars, then drew heavily on his experiences while writing and singing the songs that made him an “Outlaw country” icon. The California-born Country Music Hall of Famer who helped create the distinctive Bakersfield sound died Wednesday on his 79th birthday.

As The New York Times reported: “Unlike his friend Johnny Cash, Mr. Haggard didn’t merely visit San Quentin State Prison to perform for the inmates. Convicted of burglary in 1957, he served nearly three years there and spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement.

“Mr. Haggard went on to write ‘Mama Tried,’ ‘Branded Man’ and several other candid songs about his incarceration, all of them sung in a supple baritone suffused with dignity and regret. Many of his other recordings championed the struggles of the working class from which he rose. He became known as a poet of the common man.”

Haggard landed 71 Top 10 singles on the country charts during his decades-long career. Among his more than three dozen No. 1 hits: “Okie From Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” “Bar Room Buddies” (a duet with Clint Eastwood, featured in the film Broncho Billy), and “Pancho and Lefty” (which he recorded with his good friend Willie Nelson). “Today I Started Loving You Again,” a 1968 song Haggard and Bonnie Owens co-wrote as the B-side for his No. 1 hit “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” has been recorded by more than 400 other artists, according to The New York Times.

In 2010, Haggard was singled out for special praise by President Barack Obama during the official awards presentation for the Kennedy Center Honors in the East Room of the White House.

“In a day and age when so many country singers claim to be rambling, gambling outlaws, Merle actually is one,” President Obama said, drawing laughter and applause from the White House audience. “He hopped his first freight train at the age of 10, and was locked up some 17 times as a boy — pulling off almost as many escapes.

“Later, after becoming a bona fide country star, Merle met Johnny Cash, and mentioned that he had seen Cash perform years earlier at San Quentin prison. ‘That’s funny,’ Cash said, ‘because I don’t remember you being in the show.’ And Merle had to explain the Man in Black that he hadn’t been in the show, he had been in the audience.

“That performance had inspired Merle to start writing songs, and he’s written thousands of them since -– about three or four hundred ‘keepers’ in Merle’s opinion.  Thirty-eight of those songs have been No. 1 on the charts, including ‘Okie From Muskogee,’ which he performed for Richard Nixon right here in this room back in 1973.

“Through it all, Merle’s power has always come from the truth he tells — about life and love and everything in between. As he says, ‘The best songs feel like they’ve always been there.’ So tonight we honor a man who feels like he’s always been here — Merle Haggard.”

Below, see Haggard singing another of his No. 1 hits: “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”

See what Haggard’s friends and admirers have said in honor of the country great here.

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