Merle Haggard, the country-music icon who has died at 79, wasn’t always a musician. First, he was a thief. But, as TIME pointed out in a 1974 cover story about his role as a “pure, proud and prominent link between country’s past and present,” those two careers were not unrelated.
At the time, in the early 1970s, a craze for country music was sweeping the U.S. The genre accounted for one-fifth of the entire American music economy at the time—thanks in no small part to Haggard, who had gained national fame in 1969 with “Okie from Muskogee.”
Part of the music’s appeal, the story explained, was its determination not to shy away from raw emotion and the harsh realities of life. As Haggard put it, country was “just journalism put to music.” And, as the article’s opening paragraphs make clear, the trouble of which he sang was something he knew about firsthand:
Read the full story, here in the TIME Vault: Songs of Love, Loyalty and Doubt