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.
“The Bottle Let Me Down” (1966)
This 1966 weeper is one of Haggard’s stone-cold classics, and perhaps among the best musical encapsulations of how it feels when self-medication fails. Sitting at the bar trying to drown his demons, the singer finds the memory of an old love intruding no matter how much he imbibes. Female background vocals enter, sounding almost like the former flame haunting and taunting him as he tries to drink her off his mind. Oft-covered — from Elvis Costello to the Mavericks to Emmylou Harris — but never bettered, the bottle itself may have failed the narrator but “The Bottle” has gone on to do the trick for countless jilted lovers. S.R.
“Swinging Doors” (1966)
It’s the song that makes you revere Merle Haggard as a honky-tonk hero and pity the poor women who had to put up with his hard living. Life doesn’t get much better than the one Haggard laid out in “Swinging Doors.” He’s got it all, from a jukebox to a barstool to a flashing neon sign. “Stop by and see me anytime you want to/ ‘Cause I’m always here at home till closing time,” he sang. “And thanks to you I’m always here,” he added, essentially lifting a middle finger to his beloved. But you also suspected he was one wisecrack — or drink — away from a meltdown. J.R.
“Sing Me Back Home” (1967)
In “Hungry Eyes” and “Roots of My Raising,” Haggard’s narrators use music to revive memories they’ve been holding since childhood. “Sing Me Back Home” is a song about a prison inmate who does the same for someone else, strumming a tune for a fellow convict who wants to hear his old favorite as he walks to his death. It’s a dramatic moment, but Haggard doesn’t sing it like one: His dry, dignified voice suggests not a performer on a stage but a hardened stoic replaying one of his life’s most harrowing moments. The song is fiction, its narrative recalling the 1965 hit “Green, Green Grass of Home,” but basing its details on “a conglomeration of information” that stuck with him from his own days in San Quentin. N.M.
“I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” (1967)
It would be easy to assume that Haggard wrote this song about a fugitive running from the law, but credits actually go to Liz and Casey Anderson, who crafted a rich story loaded with metaphor and references to everything from Rudyard Kipling to Bob Dylan. Apparently, the Andersons weren’t aware of Haggard’s sordid past, and even the Hag himself was awestruck at how well the song resonated with his own personal history — which helped him slink perfectly into the midtempo western shuffle that not only speaks of his past, but his present too. “I’m on the run, the highway is my home,” are as much the words of a highway-dwelling musician as a criminal on the lam. M.M.
“Mama Tried” (1968)
Released in July 1968, “Mama Tried” was Merle Haggard’s fifth Number One song and is synonymous with the country singer, who was inspired to write the tune by the suffering he caused his own mother while incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison in 1957. With Roy Nichols on electric guitar and Haggard’s early life influences, the classic breaks free from Nashville country, opting for 1960s California honky-tonk that embodied the Bakersfield Sound Haggard was known for. It has remained a timeless live standard for country bands of every shape and color, famously covered by the Grateful Dead, the Everly Brothers, Reba McEntire and Willie Nelson. Even for those who haven’t robbed a roadhouse or spent any time in the slammer, quoting the lyrics from “Mama Tried” serves as a personal summation of one’s badassery. E.M.
“Today I Started Loving You Again” (1968)
Around 2 a.m. one night in Dallas in 1967, Merle Haggard asked his wife Bonnie Owens if she could go down the street to get him a hamburger. When she returned to their motel room, he had written “Today I Started Loving You Again.” “It’s amazing to me the things that come out of Merle’s mouth when he’s writing,” Owens said in Nicholas Dawidoff’s Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. “I never heard him talk like that. He’d say later, ‘Bonnie, I don’t ever remember saying those words. It’s like God put ’em through me. I knew he said them — I was there. I’d write them down.” Released in 1968 as the B-Side to “The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde,” it didn’t make the country Top Ten until Sammi Smith released her cover in 1975, and it’s echoed out of country bars ever since. P.D.
“The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” (1968)
A year after Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty immortalized Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow on screen, Haggard condensed the love story and notorious demise of the 1930s outlaws into two minutes of pickin’ and grinnin’ bluegrass. (Fun fact: that’s Glen Campbell tearing it up on banjo.) Bonnie Owens, Haggard’s wife at the time, sang backup and co-wrote the song, which was the title track of Haggard’s 1968 album with the Strangers. Despite lyrics about robbing and killing, Haggard seemed downright wistful about the deadly duo: “But we’ll always remember how they lived and died.” J.R.
“Silver Wings” (1969)
Look around the room when Haggard sings this live, and the same scene unfolds: Someone is inevitably wiping away tears. From 1969’s A Portrait of Merle Haggard, “Silver Wings” wasn’t a Number One hit but has endured as one of his greatest heartbreakers, on par with Mickey Newbury at his most mournful. Romanticizing an airplane’s “silver wings” that take away his lover, Haggard sang so intimately that you wondered if you were eavesdropping. Even the arrangement — with its slack guitar strums, soft brushes on the drums and a majestic wash of strings — felt like a sucker punch to the gut. Pass the Kleenex. J.R.
“Workin’ Man Blues” (1969)
Ushered in with bits of funky guitar, 1969’s “Workin’ Man Blues” became an anthem for the bluesy, blue-collar Bakersfield Sound that Haggard would come to personify. And those quirky intro licks would emerge as downright iconic too, making it increasingly safe for traditional country crooners to play as much in rock & roll waters as they damn well pleased. When the track was released, Haggard was having anything but the blues — he’d been riding high after seven Number One songs, but he refused to forget the rough and tumble roots that birthed him, singing the anthem of a man with nine children, struggling to get by. Years later, Bob Dylan would write his own riff on the song, “Workingman Blues #2,” after touring with Haggard — godlike figures of music, still pondering the common man. M.M.
“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.