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Merle Haggard: The Essential Playlist

The legendary country musician's key tracks, curated by Rolling Stone Executive Editor Jason Fine

October 1, 2009 1:20 PM ET

Merle Haggard has recorded literally hundreds of albums and thousands of songs in his career, and at age 72 he shows no signs of slowing down. He's released 11 albums in the last decade — everything from an album of honky-tonk classics to duets with George Jones and a bluegrass disc recorded mostly live in the studio. Put on any of Haggard's 38 Number One songs and you'll immediately understand why he's one of the most important singers and songwriters in American pop music history. But with this playlist of my personal favorites, I've tried to focus on a more intimate of Haggard — the songs that chart his evolution as a songwriter and also as an individual.

The list starts with his first significant hit, "All My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers," and ends with two tracks from his 2007 bluegrass album, both of which give a sense of the deep vulnerability and grace in his later music. In between are big hits and heartbreakers and oddities — everything from his tribute to Texas swing legend Bob Wills to his stellar duet with Willie Nelson on Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty." It's 40 years of mind-blowing music that only scratches the surface of a true American hero.

Jason Fine's "The Fighter: The Life and Times of Merle Haggard" appeared in Issue 1088 of Rolling Stone. Also check out a career-spanning photo gallery tracking the life of the badass legend.

"(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers"

"Fugitive"
In 1966, Haggard had his first Number One song with Anderson's "The Fugitive." The song was about a TV show popular at the time, but it hinted at Haggard's story: "I raised a lot of Cain back in my younger days/While Mama used to pray my crops would fail/Now I'm a hunted fugitive with just two ways/Outrun the law or spend my life in jail."

Though he sang about outlaws, Haggard was terrified to let people know about his own criminal past. "The last thing in the world I wanted to do," he says, "was walk up like David Allan Coe and say, 'Hey, I've been to prison, look at me.' " "The amazing thing about Merle," says Kristofferson, "is that he's never said, 'I'm the real thing, and these other guys are just going through the motions.' " It was Cash who eventually persuaded Haggard to talk about his past on Cash's TV show in 1969: "He told me, 'They're going to find out anyway. If you own up to it, you'll be a hero.' "

"Sing Me Back Home
In 1957, Haggard and a friend were home drinking wine when they launched a plan to rob a cafe owned by an acquaintance of Merle's. With Leona and infant Dana wrapped in a blanket in the backseat, Haggard drove up to the back door of the cafe and started to pick the lock. Haggard was so drunk he thought it was three in the morning — but it was really 10 p.m. and the cafe was still open. The owner came out back, confused. "Why don't you boys come around to the front door?" he said. Haggard took off, but he got caught with his headlights off half a block away. Haggard escaped jail the next day. He was recaptured at his brother's house the following evening, with a bottle of whiskey in his hand, and returned to custody, where he was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.

In San Quentin, Haggard got caught for being drunk on beer he brewed in his cell and spent seven days in solitary confinement, with just a pair of pajama pants, a Bible and a mattress that was taken away every morning at 5 a.m. During his confinement, Haggard struck up a conversation through the air vents with convicted rapist Caryl Chessman, whose case was at the center of a battle over the death penalty in the U.S. Supreme Court. Chessman's execution partly inspired one of Haggard's greatest songs, "Sing Me Back Home."

Haggard says that week in solitary was the turning point in his life. "I thought, 'You might better change your locality and get into another area of life, because this is pretty dangerous right here,' " he says. In 1959, he got a glimpse of what that new area might be when Johnny Cash came to perform at San Quentin on New Year's Day. "I didn't care for his music before that — I thought it was corny," Haggard says. "He couldn't sing a lick that day, but he had the crowd right in the palm of his hand. I became a Johnny Cash fan that day." Several years later, Haggard ran into Cash in the men's room before a TV appearance in Chicago in 1963. As they stood at the urinal, Cash asked if they'd met before. Haggard said no but that he was in the audience at San Quentin in 1959: "I told him, 'You came in there, left, and my life changed.' "

"Mama Tried"
There's a couple lines in 'Mama Tried' that are actually factual," he says. " 'The first thing I remember knowing was the lonesome whistle blowing.' At night, you could hear the Southern Pacific, that passenger train, rolling by. Before I'd go to sleep I would hear that damn train headed out of town with all those people on it going somewhere. It was intriguing, to say the least."

"I Take Pride in What I Am"

"I Can't Hold Myself in Line"

"Workin' Man Blues"
As Haggard began to write about the circumstances of his life in songs like "Mama Tried," "Hungry Eyes" and "Workin' Man Blues" (which he says was his attempt to create a defining song, like Cash had done with "Folsom Prison Blues"), he came to be viewed as a rebel icon and folk hero, an inheritor of the traditions of Woody Guthrie and Jimmie Rodgers. The Grateful Dead named their 1970 album Workingman's Dead in tribute to Haggard, and the Rolling Stones were influenced by Haggard, most directly on 1968's Beggars Banquet. "I was definitely listening to Merle by then," Keith Richards says, "and when you're a songwriter and musician, what goes in your ear tends to come out of your fingers."

"Hungry Eyes"

"Okie from Muskogee"

"Silver Wings"

"White Line Fever"

"Today I Started Loving You Again"

"Huntsville"

"California Blues "

"Miss the Mississippi and You"

"Right or Wrong"

"Stay A Little Longer"

"I'm Looking for My Mind"

"Someday We'll Look Back"

"Worried, Unhappy, Lonesome And Sorry"

"Train Of Life "

"Loneliness is Eatin' Me Alive"

"Everybody's Had the Blues"

"If We Make It Through December"

"Kern River"
The Haggards migrated to California from Checotah, Oklahoma, in 1935, after their barn burned down in a suspicious fire. Though they were far from wealthy, Haggard points out that they did not arrive with mattresses strapped to the roof of the car. "The Grapes of Wrath was not our story," he says. "We did not yield to the Depression."

Okies were discouraged from settling within Bakersfield city limits, so the Haggards moved to a migrant settlement across the Kern River called Oildale. James Haggard paid $500 for an old railroad boxcar, which he converted into a kind of early mobile home. The boxcar was set on a small plot of land next to some abandoned oil wells. "We lived like the Beverly Hillbillies," Haggard has said.

"When you say, 'Who's the great California songwriter?' people say, 'Brian Wilson,' " says California guitarist and songwriter Dave Alvin. "And he is, for a particular California. But Merle is the voice of another California." Alvin singles out "Kern River" — about a girl drowning in the treacherous waters that separated Bakersfield from the Okie settlements — as one of the great evocations of place and class in the Golden State. "It's amazingly deep and complicated," he says. "I hear a lot of California in those two and a half minutes." Dylan loves "Kern River" too, but for other reasons. "Sometimes you forget about how much natural-born heartbreak there is in a Merle Haggard song, because of all the boomtown oil-well Dust Bowl honky-tonk imagery of his music," he says. "I mean, 'Kern River' is a beautiful lament, but let's not forget it's about his girlfriend dying."

In 1970, Haggard built a mansion on the Kern River, where he lived with his second wife, Bonnie Owens, and he bought a cabin up at Lake Shasta, which he'd first seen out the window of a train when he ran away from home as a teenager.

"Ramblin' Fever"

"Runnin' Kind"

"I Never Go Around in Mirrors"

"Are the Good Times Really Over?"

"Yesterday's Wine"

"Who'll Buy The Wine"

"It's My Lazy Day"

"Pancho and Lefty"
The hits slowed down in the 1980s, but the party revved up. After splitting with his third wife, country singer Leona Williams, Haggard moved onto a houseboat on Lake Shasta. In 1983, he bought a stake in the Silverthorn Resort, a marina with a cafe, bait shop and nightclub. He hosted wet-T-shirt contests, slept all day and fished at night. "I had my toothbrush tied to the boat and let it dangle in the water," Haggard wrote in My House of Memories. "We drank cayenne-pepper drinks and wore very little clothes. . . . There were lots of drugs, women, good friends, good music and fun."

Around this time, Haggard and his buddy Willie Nelson recorded Pancho and Lefty, a laid-back album about boozing, chasing girls and skipping out on responsibilities to go fishing — with a hint of the fallout to come. "We were living pretty hard in that time period," says Nelson. The album's finest track, a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty," was cut after four in the morning. Haggard had already gone to bed, Nelson says, but they needed him for the final verse. "We went over to the condo, woke up ol' Merle and said, 'It's your turn.' "

Haggard's verse on "Pancho and Lefty" is one of his greatest performances — strong, unsentimental, yet conveying all the tragedy of the lyrics about the inevitable bad end that can come from a life of rambling. "Merle is a genial old boy," says Nelson. "He did it about half in his sleep, but Hag sings pretty good in his sleep."

"Wishing All These Old Things Were New"

"If I Could Only Fly"

"Always Late"

"More Than My Old Guitar"

"Learning To Live With Myself"

"Blues Stay Away From Me"

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