April 7, 2016 6:11 AM EDT

In 1969, when his song “Okie from Muskogee” made Merle Haggard a household name, he was only about a decade out of San Quentin State Prison. It was there that Haggard, who died April 6 on his 79th birthday, decided to end his career of ever-less-petty crime, a move that set him on a path to become one of the boldest voices in country music. But he never lost the connection with his youth, nor the remarkable empathy that was perhaps its consequence. Brought up in a converted train car near Bakersfield, Calif., he knew hard times. He also knew how to turn his keen observations into what he called, in a 1974 TIME cover story, “journalism put to music.” His catalog reached far beyond the antihippie backlash he spoke to in “Okie,” capturing decades’ worth of the nation’s fears and hopes–economic, romantic, familial, political. He sang the song of all-American struggle, and that special all-American something that made the struggle worthwhile.

–LILY ROTHMAN

This appears in the April 18, 2016 issue of TIME.

Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com.

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