During his career, which spanned nearly half a century, releasing dozens of albums and No 1 hits. Here’s a list of 10 of his greatest.
Mama Tried (1968)
His touchstone song has all the hallmarks of an immediate classic: The lament of a lifer behind bars who learns of his mother’s passing, a lyric that uses the image of a passing train whistle as the key to the emptiness in his heart, a heavy dose of self-loathing for not living up to expectations, and an insistent shuffle beat. Haggard never left the stage without delivering it to the audience and it has been kept alive through many others, from the Grateful Dead to Ray LaMontagne. Last month the Library of Congress announced the song would be added to the national recording registry due to its “cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s aural legacy”.
The Bottle Let Me Down (1966)
In the prime of the honky tonk era, this song was primed for jukebox play in every corner saloon in America. Here, Haggard is in full command of the formula of humor and pathos he would revisit throughout his career. The high harmonies in the chorus and the no-frills production leave no room for messy emotions – in fact, Haggard’s narrator spins his weary tale in less than three minutes and he’s out before tears have a chance to appear.
Silver Wings (1969)
Haggard never intended this to be a single but its popularity before live audiences kept it alive up until his death. Using the metaphor of an airplane to reflect the narrator’s anguish of a disappearing love, this is probably Haggard at his most poetic, a sad and lilting lullaby to grief.
Hungry Eyes (1969)
Grapes of Wrath novelist John Steinbeck could have written this song evoking the hardships of Oklahomans toiling in labor camps during the Great Depression. “Mama never had the luxury she wanted/but it wasn’t ‘cause my daddy didn’t try,” he sings, with strings stirring underneath. The portrayal of the mother is especially haunting; Haggard based the lyric on his memories of being raised by a single mother.
Okie From Muskogee (1969)
In the late 1960s, country music stars were relatively mute when it came to speaking out against the Vietnam conflict. Not Haggard, who wrote this song to spoof redneck angst against the growing student protest movement, but its execution left no one safe. While seeming to mock the titled Okie, a square who doesn’t “take [his] trips on LSD”, the song by its end manages to show traditional values are still honorable when there’s humility involved.
Workin’ Man Blues (1969)
This big, brawny song has a train car beat, the clink of a hammer hitting a railroad tie, and a mischievous lyric (“It’s a big job just gettin’ by with nine kids and a wife/I been a workin’ man dang near all my life) that has endeared it to blue-collar workers everywhere. If the song reminds you of the Sun Records era in Memphis, there’s good reason: playing the telecaster is James Burton, a prolific sideman for comeback era Elvis Presley.
Today I Started Loving You Again (1968)
This ballad competes with She Thinks I Still Care by George Jones as delivering the prettiest gloom of all country music. The narrator is standing still, thinking he got over a lost love but then one day it all rushes back. “What a fool I was to think I could get by/With only these few million tears I’ve cried,” he sings. We’ve all been there, pal.
Big City (1981)
Haggard was a writer with big city sophistication, but he understood the turmoil it held for rural transplants stuck in factory jobs, who yearned for a simpler life back home. That tension is captured in this number one hit during the Reagan era. “I’m tired of this dirty old city/and tired of too much work and never enough play,” he sings atop a lively fiddle. “I think I’ll walk off my steady job today.” Freedom never sounded so sweet.
I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink (1980)
The slinky beat of this latter-era Hag epitomizes his talent for self-inflicted humor amid relationship despair. “I could be holding you tonight/ I could be doing wrong instead of doing right/you don’t care about what I think/Think I’ll just stay here and drink,” he sings at the beginning.
Living With the Shades Pulled Down (1976)
Haggard’s love of western swing king Bob Wills is exemplified by this song, a speedy number with twin fiddles, horns and a shuffling beat. Haggard’s narrator is in the French Quarter of New Orleans discovering the joys of afternoon delight: “Daytime life sure is cozy living with the shades pulled down.” Indeed!
- Due to an editing error, Merle Haggard’s age was misstated as 86. He was 79.
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