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What Merle Haggard brought to the country music genre

Merle Haggard, who has died, was praised for his songwriting and collaborated with such artists as George Jones and Willie Nelson. He was behind such songs as 'Okie From Muskogee' and 'Mama Tried.'

Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP
Merle Haggard performs at the 2015 Big Barrel Country Music Festival in Dover, Del.

Country singer Merle Haggard, whose career included more than 30 No. 1 songs and who had a profound influence on the genre, has died. 

Mr. Haggard was behind such songs as “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried,” and “Okie From Muskogee.” Among many other awards, he was inducted in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and was given the Crystal Milestone Award by the Academy of Country Music.

Haggard was often praised for his songwriting.

“Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets," Bob Dylan said of the singer in a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone. “Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the’50s, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock and roll star, one of the best.”

Haggard also played the guitar and the fiddle. He released his first album, “Strangers,” in 1965 and was extremely prolific thereafter, with other works including “Same Train, A Different Time,” “It’s All in the Movies,” and “It’s All in the Game.” 

He also released collaboration albums with such artists as Willie Nelson and George Jones.

His songs discussed themes like poverty, troubles in love, and those who were struggling in all aspects of life. He was credited with helping popularize the “Bakersfield” style of country music, which was inspired by rock ‘n’ roll, among other elements. 

“It’s hard to say what country music would look like without him,” Amanda Petrusich of The New Yorker wrote of the musician. “He was a progenitor – along with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and a dozen or so others – of what’s now called outlaw country … Haggard possessed ­– could sublimate – a wildness then largely unknown (it was at least long unseen) in country music.”

Tributes from fellow country stars rolled in as news of his passing spread, the Associated Press reports. 

"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." — Dolly Parton.

"We played a lot of gigs together through the years, but some of my fondest memories were hanging out in a natural setting, like the time we sat there by the river in his backyard and ate bologna sandwiches. Merle was a simple man with incredible talent like no other." — Tanya Tucker.

"Nobody sang better or with more heart than Merle Haggard. It was an honor to spend time and share the stage with him on many occasions. Merle had a special way of making everyone around him feel like a friend, after just a short time with him." — Neal McCoy.

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