Home Music Music Country Lists

Merle Haggard: 30 Essential Songs

From the defiance of “The Fightin’ Side of Me” to the melancholy of “If We Make It Through December”

Merle Haggard

From "Mama Tried" to "Silver Wings," the essential tracks of Merle Haggard.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns

One of his many nicknames was the "Okie From Muskogee," taken from his song of that title that became a conservative anthem during the Vietnam War. But "conservative" was never the way to describe the country music phenomenon that was Merle Haggard. A pioneer of both the Bakersfield sound and the Outlaw Country movement, the California native and one-time resident of San Quentin Prison was a rule breaker both in and out of the studio, developing a sound that has been emulated by countless artists since who've walked in — and worshiped — his bootsteps. Presented in chronological order, here are the 30 songs, from the rebellious to the romantic, that collectively reflect the greatness of Merle Haggard's 54-year career.

Merle Haggard

“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.

Merle Haggard

“Okie From Muskogee” (1969)

Was he being sincere or satirical? Probably a bit of both. One of the Hag's most misunderstood songs, written with Strangers drummer Roy Edward Burris, "Okie From Muskogee" has been endlessly debated since its release at the height of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Set to pastoral acoustic guitar and featuring some of his most reverent vocals, it waxed romantic about the values of small-town America, where "we don't let our hair grow long and shaggy/like the hippies out in San Francisco do." (Given his open fondness for it now, his anti-marijuana stance is pretty comical in hindsight.) Haggard has said the anthem was his salute to the troops, and he still ends most of his concerts with it. J.R.

Merle Haggard

“White Line Fever” (1969)

Don't let the title mislead you, this stripped-back track — which appeared on the watershed live Okie From Muskogee album — isn't about that demon cocaine but rather the white lines of the highway and the allure and the monotony of the folks who are driven to choose that path. The narrator could be a long-haul trucker, a restless nomad or a weary country superstar looking out at the road rushing under his wheels, the steady tempo and elongated croon mirroring the mesmerizing view of the lines flying by on the pavement. Haggard was often drawn to themes of aging and mortality as a writer and here he was only in his early thirties when he sang "The wrinkles in my forehead/Show the miles I've put behind me/They continue to remind how fast I'm growin' old/Guess I'll die with this fever in my soul." S.R.

Merle Haggard

“The Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970)

Just four months after "Okie From Muskogee" established Haggard as spokesman for small-town conservative America, he doubled down with this love-it-or-leave-it challenge to those who were "harpin' on the wars we fight an' gripin' bout the way things ought to be." And just like "Okie," "The Fightin' Side of Me" shot straight to Number One on the country charts. The chuckle in his tone suggests Haggard is a man who enjoys a barroom tussle every now and then. But even in the midst of a call to arms this blatant, Haggard is smart enough to see the dissenting viewpoint: "An' I don't mind 'em switchin' sides/An' standin' up for things they believe in." Just don't go, as he warns, runnin' down his country, man. D.M.

Merle Haggard

“If We Make It Through December” (1973)

This wistful ode to escaping to a warmer climate, and perhaps a better life, was one of Haggard's biggest hits and a popular cover choice for everyone from Alan Jackson to Joey + Rory. Although it is not a Christmas song, per se — it was originally released on his album Christmas Present and revived years later for his seasonal outing with Willie Nelson, Pancho, Lefty and Rudolph — it does reference the holiday as a father apologizes to his daughter that there will be no presents or trimmings. Why? Daddy got laid off down at the factory. Perhaps the incongruously peppy tempo is the narrator's way of convincing his daughter, and himself, that if they make it through this cruel month they will indeed be fine. S.R.

Merle Haggard

“Things Aren’t Funny Anymore” (1974)

In addition to being Haggard's 17th Number One on the country charts, "Things Aren't Funny Anymore," released in February 1974, showcased the rough-hewn singer's softer side. Using his unraveling second marriage to Bonnie Owens as source material, Haggard really lets the hurt come through when he belts: "Seems we've lost the way to find all the good times we found before/Yeah, we used to laugh a lot/Things aren't funny anymore." Twin fiddles play the instrumental break like a broken heart pining over love's uncertainties in a tale as old as time — one that appealed to fans beyond Haggard's blue-collar country audience. E.M. 

Merle Haggard

“Holding Things Together” (1974)

Haggard has tackled many unusual subjects over the course of his career, and the tender, nearly heartbreaking "Holding Things Together" is one of his best moments dabbling in life's lesser-told stories. This tale of a man raising his children in the absence of a runaway wife isn't something often spoken about in country music, but Haggard delivers it with stunning honesty. "The postman brought a present, I mailed some days ago," he sings. "I just signed it 'love from mama,' so Angie wouldn't know." In a genre often mired in machismo, this image of a single father making uneasy attempts at the role of mother, too, is as rare as it is devastating. Dwight Yoakam realized the song's power, exposing it to a much larger audience on a 1994 Haggard tribute LP. M.M.

Merle Haggard

“Ramblin’ Fever” (1977)

By the late 1970s, the pace of Haggard's songwriting had slowed to a trickle. He wrote only two songs on 1977's Ramblin’ Fever (his MCA Records debut after an enormously successful 12-year run at Capitol), but he made them count – especially the title track, which stands among his greatest works. "Ramblin' Fever" swaggers  out of the gate with the declaration, "My hat don't hang on the same nail too long." But as usual with Haggard, there's always ambivalence if you listen closely, past the beer-soaked bravado and hot picking. A verse later he’s declaring, "If someone said I ever gave a damn, they damn sure told you wrong" with just enough quaver to make it clear that he does in fact care. It ain't easy being Merle. D.M.

Merle Haggard

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Merle HAGGARD (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Driftwood” (1979)

The song from 1990's Blue Jungle that earned the most attention was probably "Me and My Crippled Soldiers," a political track that voiced the singer's displeasure with a Supreme Court decision protecting flag-burning as free speech: "Might as well burn the Bill of Rights as well/And let our country go straight to hell." But a message record has to sound memorable, and that one didn't. In contrast, "Driftwood," which was blithely uninterested in politics, stays with the listener. Haggard grabs the attention immediately by holding each of the syllables in the title phrase for an unnaturally long amount of time. Hand percussion, an unusual texture in country music, flutters next to the thumping kick drum, and the guitar inserts itself with precision around the big, round bass notes. "Driftwood" is one of the most passive leaving songs in Haggard's catalog, which is well stocked with songs about walking away. Here he just shrugs his shoulders and floats on to the next stop: "I can't always be here with you, baby/ I'm just driftwood drifting by." E.L.

Merle Haggard

“Footlights” (1979)

By the end of the Seventies, Haggard had spent nearly half his 41 years playing music professionally (or at least semi-professionally) and was feeling some wear and tear. For his album Serving 190 Proof, he wrote the song "Footlights" about a musician who doesn't always enjoy being onstage the way he used to but doesn't really have a backup plan. Instead, he puts on his game face and tries to "kick the footlights out again," to ensure the people get their money's worth. It's hard not to wonder how tough it was for Haggard to do the same thing 40 years later. J.F. 

Merle Haggard

“Misery and Gin” (1980)

Haggard was nearing the end of a brief and tumultuous marriage to third wife Leona Williams when he recorded Back to the Barrooms, including the rousing "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink." He kicked off the album with John Robert Durrill and Snuff Garrett' "Misery and Gin," a heartbreaking ballad that David Cantwell wrote in Merle Haggard: The Running Kind "cultivated a Tin Pan Alley classicism that suited Haggard's mature voice and phrasing." Haggard scored a Number Three hit with it in 1980. After Barrooms, Haggard took up residency on a houseboat on Lake Shasta during his hardest-living period. Haggard’s band the Strangers sat out the session, with producer Jimmy Bowen instead bringing in a band that perfectly replicated their sound. "Merle brought the [Strangers] in, and old Roy Nichols, his guitar player, sitting on the couch, listening to the playback," said Bowen. "He turned to one of the other guys and said, 'Damn, I don't remember us doing that.' He thought it was him!" P.D.

Merle Haggard

“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (1980)

Thirty-one albums deep and nearly 15 years after the release of swill-em-back classics like "The Bottle Let Me Down," Haggard went Back to the Barroms in 1980 to remind the emerging Countrypolitan crooners that the genre really belongs in a honky-tonk, not in the hands of a shimmery orchestra. "Ain't no woman gonna change the way I think," Haggard sings is his classic baritone, his syllables elongated by just enough shots of bourbon — ain't no one, actually, going to change the way the Hag thinks or sings, and this was proof. Even though it clocked in at over four minutes and allowed for ample, loose instrumental grooves (thanks in particular to Reggie Young's nimble guitar and Don Markham's wail on the sax), it still went to Number One. Nobody made their own rules like Haggard, and no one was so content to break their own, either. M.M.