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Remembering Merle Haggard, outlaw legend of country music

Merle Haggard rose to country music stardom singing about what he knew best: poverty, prison and heartache. He died Wednesday on his 79th birthday. William Brangham looks back at the singer's life.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Finally tonight: remembering the country music legend, and one of its outlaw heroes, Merle Haggard.

    William Brangham is back with a look at his career.

  • MERLE HAGGARD, Musician:

    I guess I will just always be the old country singer, you know, the guy that sings about all the things that happen.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Merle Haggard rose to country music stardom singing about what he knew best, poverty, prison, heartache. Born near Bakersfield, California, Haggard was raised in a converted railway car, the only home his parents could afford.

    He was 9 when his father died, and before long, he turned to petty crime and landed in San Quentin Prison, where he saw Johnny Cash play.

  • DON CUSIC, Belmont University:

    Merle Haggard lived outside the Law and got thrown into prison for it.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Don Cusic is a historian of country music at Belmont University in Nashville.

  • DON CUSIC:

    If ever there was a poster boy for prison reform and prison rehabilitation, Merle Haggard would be exhibit A.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Haggard turned to writing his own music after his release in 1960, and eventually scored hits with "The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde" and "Sing Me Back Home," which was an ode to his time in San Quentin.

  • VINCE GILL, Musician:

    Merle would find prison stories. He would find a single parent, a single father in holding things together, fight inside of me sticking up for our country. Just — he was unabashed about telling the truth.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That came through most famously in Haggard's 1969 hit "Okie From Muskogee," which became a kind of conservative anthem at the height of the Vietnam War.

  • DON CUSIC:

    It was an anthem for the silent majority for the middle class. It was what the conservative — in political terms, conservative movement, the conservative folks were wanting to say.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Haggard later said he never intended to be taken that way, and later in life, he turned anti-war himself.

    He also helped pioneer the so-called outlaw country genre, bucking the highly polished Nashville sound.

  • DON CUSIC:

    Haggard was an outlaw in the sense that he demanded creative control. He didn't do just what producers told him to, lived his own life, called his own shots.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    As his career grew, the accolades piled on, including dozens of albums and number one hits, album of the year awards and the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2010, he was honored by the Kennedy Center and at a White House ceremony.

  • PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA:

    In a day and age when so many country singers claim to be rambling, gambling outlaws, Merle actually is one.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Haggard also continued performing late into life. But a long battle with pneumonia forced him off the road this year.

    Here he is back in 1978 performing "Sing Me Back Home" on the PBS series "Austin City Limits."

    (MUSIC)

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Merle Haggard died today, on his 79th birthday.

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