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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.

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.