His career spanned the famous Bakersfield sound, the outlaw era, and 38 No. 1 hits on the country music charts. Now comes word that Merle Haggard has died Wednesday – his 79th birthday.

Haggard gave voice to people living hard-scrabble lives, and it was a voice he came by honestly. Born in 1937 in Oildale, Calif., just outside Bakersfield, he grew up living in a converted boxcar and spent his early years bouncing between jails and oil fields, and playing music in bars.

Here are 10 songs of Merle Haggard who was often called the poet of the common man:

10.) Sing Me Back Home:

       This chart-topper is based on Haggard's incarceration in San Quentin for a robbery conviction. The song is told from the viewpoint of his fellow inmate Jimmy "Rabbit" Hendricks, who escaped and killed a state trooper while on the run, eventually getting caught and later put to death.

 9.) I'm a Lonesome Fugitive:

          Though it was written by Liz and Casey Anderson, Haggard's hard-living past lent authenticity to this song, his first Number One single.

 8.) Folsom Prison Blues:

         This was the song that started it all. Before Merle Haggard became a country groundbreaker, he was a run-of-the-mill lawbreaker at California's San Quentin prison, serving time for burglary.

 7.) I Made the Prison Band:

         Haggard made this Tommy Collins track his own on 1967's Branded Man, if not for one pretty significant reason: he actually played in a prison band while doing time at San Quentin, where he was in the audience when Johnny Cash stopped by to play his own set of jailhouse blues.

6.) House of Memories:

         There's one thing worse than being stuck in a jail cell with a smelly dude who may or may not beat you up while you sleep: being held captive by the suffocating memory of an ex-lover. Ah, the prison of broken romance, which Haggard sings so well on "House of Memories," where the home that once brought joy now carries nothing but arresting flashbacks to all that he's lost.  


5.) Legend of Bonnie and Clyde:

     While not technically a "prison" song — the titular characters end up shot dead, not behind bars — the crime saga is Haggard's cautionary tale of what could happen if a pair of bandits doesn't come out quietly, hands above their head. In this case, the doomed crooks are infamous real-life duo Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and Haggard, who penned the song with wife Bonnie Owens, delivers their tale with a historian's attention to detail.

 4.) Green, Green Grass of Home:

      Written by Curly Putman, "Green, Green Grass of Home" is best-known for Tom Jones' operatic 1966 version. And yet Merle Haggard's more restrained take from 1968 might be the best of all. It appears on his Mama Tried album as the second song, immediately following the title track as one of the great opening one-two punches in country music history, and the performance is stunning.

3.) Will You Visit Me on Sundays?

     Like "Green, Green Grass of Home," the singer's own impending execution figures into "Will You Visit Me on Sundays?" But instead of calm restraint, this one goes straight for over-the-top pathos. Facing a crack-of-dawn date with the hanging tree he can see from his cell – "Sunrise I'll meet darkness, and death" – a panicked Haggard begs a lover to promise to visit his grave. 

2.) Branded Man:

     Luckily for Haggard, his music career never again required him to answer the "have you ever been convicted of a crime?" question on a job application. Even though he straightened his life out by the time he recorded this 1967 hit, the country star sings for all the ex-cons who did their time but can't shake the stigma of their crimes: "No matter where I'm living, the black mark follows me," he sings. "I'm branded with a number on my name."

1.) Mama Tried:

    Covered by everyone from the Grateful Dead (at Woodstock, no less) to Percy Sledge, "Mama Tried" stands as one of the Hag's signature and most-covered compositions. It's easy to see why. Entire Hall of Fame careers has gone by without yielding up a single line as indelible as "I turned 21 in prison doin' life without parole."

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