We are sad to report that country music icon Merle Haggard died early today, his birthday, at age 79. He had been in ill health for some time, had recently canceled tour dates, and succumbed to pneumonia. Merle's son, Ben, posted on Facebook today:

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.

The country icon was born Merle Ronald Haggard in 1937 just outside of Bakersfield, Calif., a town that he would help make famous with his revolutionary sound. His family struggled financially throughout his childhood, living in an old converted boxcar after their home burned down. After Haggard’s father died when he was 9, he turned rebellious, hopping a freight train to Fresno and getting picked up by the authorities when he was just 10, according to his official biography. He was in and out of reform schools and deemed “incorrigible,” and ended up in and out of jail as a young adult, culminating in a stretch in prison when he was 20 years old.

Haggard began to take music seriously while in prison at San Quentin, where he was on hand for the Johnny Cash performance that was captured for the iconic live album At San Quentin.

He began to make a name for himself in the club scene around Bakersfield after his release, developing a hard-charging approach to country music that prominently featured twangy electric guitars. He released his first single, a cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Sing a Sad Song,” in 1964, but it was Haggard’s own compositions that launched him as one of the most important and influential country hitmakers of his generation.

Merle Haggard had an impressive run, scoring #1 songs from the mid-'60s through the '80s, including stone-cold country classics like "Mamma Tried," "Okie from Muskogee," and "The Fightin' Side of Me." He was the real deal. Merle, you'll be missed. Rest in peace.

Stream some of Merle's best-known songs, below:

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