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Merle Haggard turned to God more and more as he aged

Country music star Merle Haggard, who died Wednesday at age 79, made a career out of singing about drinking and prison along with paying homage to the working class. But, as illnesses like cancer caused his health to decline over the last decade, he drew closer to God.

"It's almost embarrassing to know that the Lord cares that much for me, but I'm going to shout it to the world," he wrote on his website after surviving lung cancer in 2008, according to The Christian Post.

Haggard's mother, Flossie Mae Haggard, was a devout member of the Church of Christ, going so far as to ban her husband, James, from playing fiddle in honky-tonk bars because she thought it was sinful, CMT Artists reports. But faith didn't come naturally to their son Merle, and he battled a rebellious streak from a young age that landed him in prison.

"Despite all my Sunday learning, towards the bad I kept turning," he sang in his 1968 autobiographical hit, "Mama Tried."

Even in the midst of family tragedy, young Haggard turned to the distractions of the outside world instead of clinging to his mother's religion.

"After his father died of a stroke in 1946, Merle started getting into trouble. … The rebellious young man spent time in juvenile facilities and reform schools over the next several years, but he also fell in love with music and began learning to play guitar," The Tennessean reported. "When Haggard was 20, he was sent to San Quentin State Prison after a burglary attempt," where played in a prison band and grew determined to turn his life around.

His commitment to bettering himself paid off big. Haggard had 38 No. 1 singles in his career and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994, The New York Times reported in its obituary of the singer.

"He was as convincing singing about drinking and heartbreak as he was performing sentimental and devotional numbers, topical material and novelties," the article noted.

In 2008, Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer and began discussing his personal faith more and more, as The Christian Post reported. He appeared to have welcomed God into his life on his own terms, sprinkling a few cuss words into his expressions of gratitude.

The country music lifestyle doesn't always appear very holy, but that doesn't mean singers aren't saying their prayers, Haggard told CNN in 2012.

"You probably wouldn't call us religious people if you saw us with a camera. You might not see what we're doing. Sometimes there is a prayer being mumbled under our breath," he said.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas