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The Songwriters Hall of Fame was saddened to learn of the passing of 2007 Inductee Merle Haggard today, on his 79th birthday.

Merle Haggard, one of the architects of the “Bakersfield Sound,” named after the California town in which he was born in 1937. Labeled a “black-hat rebel,” he was considered the country music champion of the underdog. After Haggard’s first album was released in 1965, he became best known as the man who sang songs about wanderers, fugitives, and the generally downtrodden.

He started out life with his family in a converted railroad boxcar on the outskirts of Bakersfield, his father having gotten a job on the Santa Fe railroad, thus contributing to Haggard’s lifelong obsession with trains, even naming his 1976 My Love Affair with Trains. He was given a guitar at the age of 12, and learned to play listening to records by Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. His father’s devastating early death when Haggard was 9 years old had already set him on a path that led him to several stints in various juvenile detention centers and local jails, winding up in San Quentin Prison until 1960. There, he began playing for the prison’s country music band, attributing a 1958 performance by Johnny Cash at the prison as his main inspiration to join it.  “Mama Tried,” considered by some critics to be Haggard’s greatest song, is a fairly straight autobiographical account of his road to San Quentin, and many of his biggest early hits, like “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” and “Mama Tried,” alluded to his criminal past. In 1969…

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