Originally from California, country artist Merle Haggard was a part of the 1950s Bakersfield Sound movement, a subgenre of country music that rebelled against the production-heavy “Nashville Sound” that was popular at the time (and still is). Over the course of his musical career, the songwriting icon released over 30 number-one hits. Backed by his faithful band The Strangers, Haggard would go on to spend decades not only defining the very genre of country music, but influencing its future stars for generations to come.
Nicknamed “Hag,” the songwriter was no cowboy chord player. He didn’t just rely on standard G, D, and C chords for his music. He was heavily influenced by jazz and was known for incorporating quite a few jazz elements into his own music, which balanced harmoniously between country and rock and roll.
Read on for more about one of country music’s most influential figures as we count down the best Merle Haggard songs below.
10. That’s The Way Love Goes
A tender take on the beauty of love, Merle Haggard scored one of many number-one hits when he released ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ in ’83. Written by country legends Lefty Frizell and Sanger Shafer, it’s a classic country song that’s been around since the ’70s, when singer Johnny Rodriguez first released his own version. Eloquently describing romance as “the music God made,” the lyrics liken finding your mate to finding your ultimate good luck charm. Haggard’s soothing gruffness added a bit of a somber quality to the track. Though it would be a surprising angle for other country stars to take, any fan of Haggard’s understands that it’s the only way he could pull off such a lovey-dovey song so naturally. This would go on to be his 30th number-one hit, and he’d score eight more after this release over the course of his career.
9. Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)
“Is the best of the free life behind us now?” A slow, mournful, reflective take on changing cultural norms, ‘Are the Good Times Really Over’ details traditional values and modern society’s sometimes dim view of the more simple ways of life. Featured on his award-winning album Big City, lyrics are the main focus point of the track, while hints of instrumentation back up the singer’s ramblings like, “I wish a buck was still silver,” a reference to the days when money was backed by gold, therefore held its value and was more stable. The overall production and performance give the otherwise traditional country tune a spoken-word appeal. Though he was known for energetic juke joint tracks, Merle could also pen delicate, pensive confessionals like this one with ease.
8. Ramblin’ Fever
Haggard turns back to his pure country sound with ‘Ramblin’ Fever,’ the title track off of his 1977 album. Opening with a catchy electric guitar intro., we find our country songwriter singing about the open road and never staying tied down too long over twangy instrumentation and a grooving backbeat. This is one of his songs that shows how far his influence would reach. Not only did his talented band The Strangers influence the instrumentation side of country music well into the ’80s and ’90s, Merle’s voice would go on to define the classic singing cowboy of modern times. Close your eyes and listen to Haggard’s voice, then George Strait’s. It’s hard to tell the difference.
7. Working Man Blues
Highly praised by critics as one of the finest tunes he’d written, ‘Working Man Blues’ was a Hag tune released all the way back in ’69. It was one of his earlier efforts that small-town America would adopt as one of their anthems. The title itself represents exactly what the song is about, a prideful take on blue-collar workers and their close-knit families across America. The single was also a solid representation of what was known at the time as “The Bakersfield Sound.’ Hailing from the state he was from, California, the subgenre of country was a critique of the overproduced “Nashville Sound’ coming out of the Tennessee music hub. The Bakersfield Sound was one of the first offshoots to experiment with crossing genres and adding rock and roll to its twangy mix.
Recommended: See our songs relating to work.
6. Okie From Muskogee
An early hit by Haggard that scored him multiple awards, ‘Okie from Muskogee’ was actually written from a comedic viewpoint when he and his band started jotting down lyrics while cutting through small towns in Oklahoma to get to their next gig (Muskogee is actually one of those small Sooner State towns). It didn’t matter if Haggard had a tongue-in-cheek intention with the release, consumers took it seriously. Before he knew it, he had a number-one hit on his hands that country music fans from small towns everywhere sang along to with pride. With references to “the hippies out in San Fransisco” and “white lightning,” Haggard was actually poking fun at the more buttoned-up communities in rural areas. However, those communities were ready for a small-town anthem at the time and whether he liked it or not, they chose Haggard’s country critique of “his dad’s generation” as their rallying cry. With its chart success, Haggard just went along with the turn of events. It wouldn’t be until quite a few years later that he spilled the beans about the true meaning of the song during an interview.
5. I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink
This heartbreak-happy song is classic country at its finest and represents the tried-and-true image of a lone cowboy in a dim-lit, bustling bar drinking his cares away with ice cold beer. Appropriately appearing on the album Back to the Barrooms, ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink’ shot up to number one on the charts, providing the singer-songwriter with yet another toe-tapping hit. For most of his career, his band which he lovingly called The Strangers (their name is a reference to his first hit) backed him up. For their accompaniment on this track, bandmate Don Markham delivered a surprising saxophone solo. Haggard ripped into a lively electric guitar solo as well. The singer-songwriter was also a gifted guitar player who grew up learning jazz, and fused the eclectic genre’s improvisational techniques with country’s more relatable lead guitar work.
Recommended: Our list of songs about booze.
4. Big City
With Haggard’s background in jazz, people who worked with him often compared his ability to command a band to that of orchestra leader Duke Ellington. His ability to not only lay down his own guitar and vocal parts for songs, but relay to his band the rhythms, drum hits, and melodies they needed to play as well was in fine form for their recording session of ‘Big City.’ The inspiration behind the song happened suddenly, after Merle’s driver Dean became tired of their stay in L.A. while recording. After remarking, “I’m tired of this dirty old city,” Hag began jotting down notes during their conversation. Within the hour, he had the pieces for the fledgling song ready to record. He and his band laid it down in an afternoon, Merle quickly huddling the band together to go over the song before he lost the melody. What began as a nonchalant conversation about moving to Montana became another number one hit for Haggard. He split the royalties with his driver too. Hag was a standup guy.
Recommended: Love or loathe the big smoke, check out our songs about cities around the world.
3. Fightin Side Of Me
Known as one of Haggard’s most popular releases, ‘Fightin’ Side of Me’ also proved to be one of country music’s more controversial singles. When it was first released in 1970, the song represented a part of America that often felt overlooked when it came to issues the nation faced. With a blue-collar focus and patriotism within its lyrics (the hook of the chorus is, “When you’re runnin’ down my country, man, you’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me”), much of the midwest and southern populations related to the message. The single debuted during the counter-culture movement of the late ’60s that put a lot of focus on protesting the Vietnam War. Haggard’s implied support of the conflict in the song sparked a bit of rivalry between the “hippies” and Haggard. As the years went on though, the two camps found common ground, with Haggard talking positively about anti-war stances, and certain counter-culture crowds even used his songs for protest events. The tune continues to be one of country music’s most iconic songs to this day.
2. Pancho and Lefty
Willie Nelson helped make this wild west tune a hit when he teamed up with Haggard to record it in 1983. But one of America’s most treasured songwriters, Townes Van Zandt, actually wrote it and released it in the early 70s. When you realize who originally wrote it, the forlorn quality of the story makes sense. Van Zandt struggled his entire life with depression and his battles with mental health issues always colored his songs with a blue, melancholy hue. Despite the song’s two main characters, a couple of free-spirited bandits running into disaster and trouble, country music of the ’80s maintained a habitually positive tone, and the instrumentation of Haggard and Nelson’s version reflects this. A fun fact about the video: Van Zandt makes a cameo appearance as the leader of a pack of Federales in search of the loveable Pancho and Lefty duo.
Recommended: Hear the original Townes Van Zandt version on our greatest folk songs list.
1. Mama Tried
It’s a tough choice picking the #1 song for our best of Merle Haggard list. Despite his many top hits and widely covered songs, none are more enduring and none represent Hag’s legacy better than ‘Mama Tried.’ Throughout Merle’s early years, he landed himself a couple of different times in the slammer. He wrote this tune, now considered to be one of country music’s most famous songs ever recorded, while serving a sentence in the infamous San Quentin Prison. ‘Mama Tried’ has a lyrical focus and tells his life story. It pays homage to his patient mother, who tried her best to keep him on the straight and narrow path despite his constant rebellion. Poetic lines like “One and only rebel child, from the family meek and mild,” soar over memorable single note electric guitar licks as finger-picked acoustic guitar rolls in the background. There isn’t one aspect of this track that isn’t iconic. Its crossover appeal defies age and has been covered by a wide variety of acts, including The Grateful Dead. Haggard’s son Ben, now a traveling musician himself and continuing his father’s legacy, covered the song in 2014.
Recommended: This song appears on our list of the finest country music ever recorded (a must-read.)