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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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. 

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“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.

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“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.

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“Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)” (1982)

Haggard returned to the down-home values of "Okie From Muskogee" for this state-of-the-union ballad, which was named Song of the Year by the Academy of Country Music in 1982. In a way, it's the Hag's "get off my lawn" song, replete with gripes about lying presidents, the longevity of American-made cars and those newfangled microwave ovens — he'd win no points with feminists when he pined for a "girl who could still cook, still would." Just as outrageous was the later pro-pot Haggard's line about wishing a joint was still a "bad place to be." Ultimately, though, the then 45-year-old comes across as more cautionary sage than grumpy old man, warning about a U.S. that is headed straight to hell. It was a sentiment shared by gloom-and-doom politicians and talk-show hosts alike — late loudmouth Morton Downey Jr. would even cover the song. J.H.

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

“Big City” (1982)

After a rough two days of recording 23 songs in 48 hours (in the midst of 1981's scorching hot July), Haggard's band was packing up when he went outside to check on his best friend and bus driver, Dean Holloway. Peeved by the heat and grueling schedule, Holloway actually uttered the phrase, "I'm tired of this dirty old city," inspiring the country man to run back inside and take Holloway's anger out on paper with the rest of the band. Thanks to Holloway's inspiring words, the Hag rolled out of Los Angeles with a song tapped into urban frustrations that still resonate with Americans today — an escapist dream to move "somewhere in the middle of Montana." (Maybe that's where John Mayer got the idea to flee from his troubles and relocate to Big Sky Country in 2011.) Regardless, the title track to Big City became Haggard's 27th Number One single on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart in April of '82. E.M.

 

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“That’s the Way Love Goes” (1983)

A lifelong admirer of Lefty Frizzell, Haggard paid homage with this cover of Frizzell's "That's the Way Love Goes," which became the title track of a 1983 album. (He also dusted it off in 1999 as a duet with Jewel.) Johnny Rodriguez first took it to the top of the charts in 1973, and Connie Smith and Willie Nelson also recorded memorable versions. Haggard's take, even with electric piano adding some Eighties gloss, stayed true to the original's tenderness — a celebration of lasting love and the peace of mind it brings. J.R.    

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

“Pancho & Lefty” (1983)

Even when he wasn't writing, Haggard knew a good song when he heard one and wanted to make sure that more people knew of the masterworks of Townes Van Zandt when he partnered up with pal Willie Nelson for their 1983 duet record Pancho & Lefty. The title track, originally released by Van Zandt in 1972 and introduced to the Hag by his daughter, may have reached cult status among a small fan base and certainly fellow artists, but Van Zandt never dreamed it would see the country charts, which it did when Haggard and Nelson's cover shot right to the top. Though "Pancho" is about a bandit on the run — maybe or maybe not Mexican general Pancho Villa — the dynamite duo turned it into a parable for the outlaw life, on the road not from the law but the banalities of a traditional existence, where most nights are spent on the couch, not on stage. M.M.

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“Kern River” (1985)

If Ray Price gave us "Heartaches by the Number," "Kern River" is heartbreak by geography: South San Joaquin, "where the seeds of the Dust Bowl began"; the hills of Lake Shasta, where our defeated narrator lives in exile; and of course the river of the title, the border between Haggard's Oildale and Buck Owens' Bakersfield, the place where the old man first fell in love then lost his love to a powerful current. Haggard neglects to include much detail, but what he allows gives each location the weight of symbolism. When he concludes that he'll never again swim the Kern, he's really steeling himself for more years of sad songs and loneliness. N.M.

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“If I Could Only Fly” (1987)

Albums from this period of the Hag's recording career aren'tt usually his most lauded, and 2000's If I Could Only Fly is one of them, released via the hip Epitaph imprint Anti-, now how to such quirky acts as Man Man and the Milk Carton Kids. It's a shame, because songs like the title track reaffirm that not only was Haggard as influential as they come in shaping country music, he was often a subtle, stirring wordsmith too. It's a weeping folk ballad accompanied by simple, sentimental guitar and Haggard's voice, beautifully frayed from age, singing of a romance with miles and miles between two lovers: "if we could only fly/there'd be no more lonely nights." Underneath it all is the tearful unspoken reality — the distance isn't the problem, it's just that he's a man built to roam. M.M.

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“No Time to Cry” (1996)

Buried on one Haggard's lesser-known albums 1996 (the follow-up to 1994) was one of his most heartbreaking performances, a cover of Iris DeMent's ballad about coping with the loss of a parent and getting older. Haggard met directly with DeMent to learn the song. Nicholas Dawidoff's In the Country of Country detailed the session, in which Haggard gave a window into his hard-won process of masterfully interpreting songs: "I'm trying to decide how to sing this," he said. "It's not really sorrow. It's a kind of emptiness that comes on when you know the dearly departed are really gone. It's real hard to describe it without being morbid or unpleasing. Some songs, great songs, you can't bear to hear them because they make you cry." P.D.

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“Wishing All These Old Things Were New” (2000)

The Nineties were a fallow period for Haggard, at least from an artistic standpoint. After three albums on Curb Records, he signed to the hip Los Angeles label Anti- and returned to form on 2000's If I Could Only Fly. (Upon release, Haggard quipped, "I'm giving it a higher score than any album I've made to date, but what the hell do I know?") The opening track "Wishing All These Old Things Were New" set the tone for his latest tales of redemption, wasting no time in cutting close to the bone: "Watching while some old friends do a line/holding back the want to in my own addicted mind." J.R.

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“Live This Long” (2015)

This gem penned by Shawn Camp and Marv Green comes from the Hag's superb 2015 duets album with Willie Nelson, Django and Jimmie. The two old lions sit around the pride, roaring about their gloriously misspent youths alluding to the ladies they loved, the songs they sang and the friends they lost along the way. But there is real pensiveness to the chorus, in which they intone, "We would've taken much better care of ourselves/if we'd known we was gonna live this long." In light of the health concerns Haggard faced later in life, this wry twilight reflection takes on new poignance as he speak-sings with sincerity to Nelson, "Well we're in pretty good shape, Will, for the shape we're in and we'll keep rocking along til we're gone." S.R. 

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