"Hungry Eyes" (1969)
Also known as "Mama's Hungry Eyes," this tribute to the man's own single mama was the high point of his 1969 album A Portrait of Merle Haggard. And it's a masterpiece of unusually sophisticated empathy, evoking soul starvation that's every bit as oppressive as hunger of the stomach. The hardscrabble setting is a Depression-era labor camp, and the whole thing is all the more heartbreaking because the singer admits he had no idea how much pain his parents were in. It's only in retrospect that he realizes what was going on, recalling struggles that only led to "a little loss of courage as their age began to show" and more sadness in those titular hungry eyes. D.M.