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Merle Haggard's eldest daughter Dana dies at 61

Dana Haggard

Dana Haggard with her father, Merle.

Dana Haggard, eldest daughter of the late country legend Merle Haggard, has died, family members confirmed Wednesday.

"My oldest sister Dana passed away yesterday," youngest brother Ben Haggard wrote in an Instagram post. "This absolutely broke my heart. I know she's hugging dad's arm again. I'll miss you, sister. RIP."

Dana is believed to have died in her sleep Monday night or Tuesday morning, her sister Kelli Haggard Patterson said. "Her husband left for work early in the morning (Tuesday) and she was still asleep," Patterson said. "When he got home later that day he found her and she hadn't moved." 

The sisters were close.

"Dana was my best friend and we talked several times a day," Patterson said. "Our life when we were young was very different from what dad's youngest ones, Ben and Jenessa, experienced, so the four of us, Dana, me, Marty and Noel, clung to each other. This is like having a limb removed."

At this point Dana is thought to have died of natural causes, Patterson said.

"It could have been heartache," Ben said. "We just had the second anniversary (of their father's death) and she was missing the old man. Who knows?"

Ben said he last saw Dana at one of his band's shows last month in Oklahoma.

"She got up and sang, 'Today I Started Loving You Again,'" Ben said. "And she sang her heart out. We all knew who she was singing for."

Dana Haggard, 61, was born in 1957 to Merle and his first wife, Leona Hobbs.

A musician in her own right, she toured with her brother Marty as Marty and Dana Haggard and the Driftwood Band and for a time sang with her father’s band, The Strangers. Over the years, she often sang backing vocals at her father's performances. She also performed solo shows and gigs with her brother, Noel.

"She thought it, she said it," Patterson said of her sister. "But it was usually good, and it was usually funny. She was so fun and outgoing. She couldn't be in a grocery checkout line without making a friend."

During a 2016 memorial service for Merle in Bakersfield, Dana described her father like this:

“My dad was a lot deeper than anybody saw,” The Californian quoted her as saying. “He loved to pick our brains. We never got in trouble for any thought we had, but he always played devil’s advocate with us. There were a lot of layers to that onion.”

Dana Haggard, the first of four children for Merle Haggard and Leona Hobbs, was married and lived in Russellville, Ark.

She had said she and her full siblings did not know their father well until later in life, because he was often in trouble or, later, touring.

She was there, just an infant, the night her father, then 19, attempted to break into a diner, was spotted and later apprehended. Merle Haggard was sent to San Quentin State Prison as a result of that conviction, with the weight of his other misdeeds factored in by the judge.

The four oldest Haggard children actually lived for a time in the converted boxcar that now resides at the Kern County Museum.

"When we got older we moved into the front house with (grandmother) Flossie, and the boxcar was our playhouse," Patterson said.

Merle Haggard had two children with his fifth and final wife, Theresa, who attended Friday's dedication in downtown Bakersfield of the Merle Haggard Post Office.

"God bless you Dana, we'll sing again over yonder," Bakersfield musician Ernie Lewis‎ wrote on Dana Haggard's Facebook page. "I will always treasure my memories of performing with you, and I appreciate being your friend. Prayers coming for family and friends."

Dana Haggard leaves behind husband Terry Lemons, four children, Mathew, Kelli, Jarrod and Michael, stepson Austin, and nine grandchildren.

Plans are under way for memorial services in Arkansas and Bakersfield.

"She was a god fearing person and I loved her," cousin Jim Haggard said. "We all got along and we all loved each other."

Robert Price can be reached at 661-395-7399. Follow him on Twitter: @stubblebuzz.

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