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Country music’s longest reigning outlaw, Merle Haggard, died Wednesday, on his 79th birthday. The singer influenced a bevy of artists across several generations, including Reba McEntire, who idolized him as a child and considered him a friend and “family member” later on.

“My first big concert was Merle Haggard and the Strangers,” McEntire said in a statement to EW Wednesday. “Pake, Susie, and I were The Singing McEntire’s in junior high and high school. Pake sang Merle Haggard songs, I sang Loretta and Dolly songs, and Susie sang Ann Murray songs. Susie and I sang harmony when Pake sang. We all looked up to Merle Haggard. And it was a thrill in my life when I got to work with him on the road. We won state in 4-H club Share of the Fun contest singing ‘Okie from Muskogee.'”

She finished saying, “Merle has been a part of my family for a long time. I remember when he was winning all the CMA awards for ‘Okie from Muskogee,’ I went to bed that night and rehearsed my acceptance speech. He inspired me so much.”

McEntire has covered Haggard’s standard “Mama Tried” in concert over the years. Below is a live recording of her introduction and masterful interpretation of the tune.