The death of the legendary country singer-songwriter leaves a hole in our hearts and a treasure-trove of songs from a career that spanned more than five decades.
Selecting the best Merle Haggard songs is like choosing the best John Wayne westerns. No matter which classics you pick, you’re leaving dozens off the list. So with apologies to “Big City,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Going Where the Lonely Go,” and many more, here are our picks for the definitive Haggard playlist.
“Sing a Sad Song” (1963)
The road to his Country Music Hall of Fame career starts with this first hit (it peaked at No. 19), a typical “tear in my beer” tune that is elevated by Haggard’s remarkable soaring vocal.
“Just Between the Two of Us” (1964)
This duet with Bonnie Owens (whom Haggard would later marry — and divorce) is both whimsical and sad, as the two sing about how well they get along because neither of them even has the energy to care anymore.
“Mama Tried” (1968)
While many country stars sought an outlaw image, Haggard was among the few legally qualified for that status — he did a three-year stretch in San Quentin for burglary in the late 1950s. He wrote “Mama Tried” knowing what the view was like from behind bars, even if he didn’t “turn 21 in prison doing life without parole.”
“Today I Started Loving You Again” (1968)
What began as the B-side of the single “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” became one of Haggard’s most unforgettable heartbreak ballads.
“Hungry Eyes” (1969)
This deeply moving composition reflects on the hardscrabble life of his parents, who fled the Dust Bowl for a squalid tent city in California, where they struggled to get by working in the orchards for subsistence wages.
“Workin’ Man Blues” (1969)
“I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be/I’ll be workin’ long as my two hands are fit to use.” Haggard had a way with earnest lyrics, as evident in this tribute to blue-collar work and the integrity in honest labor.
“Okie From Muskogee” (1969)
Haggard’s signature song was a patriotic shot across the bow during one of the most politically charged eras in American history.
“Silver Wings” (1969)
The title song from Haggard’s Okie From Muskogee album earned most of the attention, but the misty-eyed farewell tune “Silver Wings” proved just as enduring.
“The Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970)
For those who didn’t get the message after “Okie From Muskogee,” Haggard doubles down on his defense of America against its detractors: “They love our milk and honey, but they preach about some other way of livin’.”
“Time Changes Everything” (1970)
Haggard paid homage to a childhood hero with an album entitled A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills). Among its many highlights is this cover of a Wills classic.
“As riveting as any record you’re ever likely to hear.” That’s how the book Heart-aches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles describes “Carolyn,” with its soaring string arrangements, intense performance by Haggard, and harmony vocal by Glen Campbell.
“If We Make It Through December” (1973)
Haggard recorded several Christmas songs, but none as memorable as this classic about a laid-off factory worker just hoping to get through the month.
“Ramblin’ Fever” (1977)
The Southern rock-flavored title track from Haggard’s 25th album deserves to rank among his dozens of No. 1 singles, but the guitar-picking paean to restlessness peaked at No. 2.
In just three minutes and 30 seconds, this amazing tribute to a pioneer of the Bakersfield sound thoroughly captures the ups and downs in the tumultuous life of Tommy Collins (whose birth name was Leonard Sipes).
“Pancho and Lefty” (1983)
Townes Van Zandt wrote this touching cowboy ballad in 1972, but it would be more than 10 years before Haggard and buddy Willie Nelson recorded the definitive version, accompanied by a memorable music video.
From the August/September 2016 issue.
Photography: Webster Public Relations