On Wednesday (April 6), the world lost Merle Haggard, arguably the finest singer and songwriter in country music history. Haggard died on his 79th birthday in California. For the past several months he had been battling pneumonia.
Haggard was a musical pioneer and is a pillar of the country genre. A rebellious soul with a kind spirit, he lived a rich blue-collar life, and his music reflected it in every way. He was, as one musical tribute put it, “The Working Man’s Poet.”
Throughout his career, Haggard charted 38 No. 1 hits, and he released several more. In remembrance of him, here are six Merle Haggard songs that describe the story of his life, the enduring style of the music he created, and the indelible mark he left on American culture.
Merle was an outlaw, not just in the country music industry, but also in his young adult years. In Haggard’s semi-autobiographical “Mama Tried,” he tells the story of a man who goes from rebellious youth to convict, lamenting Mama’s pleas for him to leave his unruly ways behind. The refrain, “I turned 21 one in prison doin’ life without parole, no one could steer me right, but Mama tried,” is a rebellious line that has inspired countless country artists over the decades.
“Sing Me Back Home”
During his time in San Quentin prison, Haggard made friends with an inmate named Jimmy “Rabbit” Hendricks. The pair devised an escape plan, but later mutually agreed it’d be best if Haggard stay behind. Rabbit was later caught and sentenced to execution for killing a cop on the outside. Haggard wrote “Sing Me Back Home” as a tribute to his friend. The song is about a hardened criminal going to his execution, but as you listen to it, you feel a very human care for him as he walks to his end. “Sing Me Back Home” remains one of the most poignant farewell songs in the American songbook.
“Okie From Muskogee”
Haggard’s anti-hippie song was more of a tribute to his late father than a strong political statement. According to Haggard, his father used to refer to Muskogee, Oklahoma as “back home” when the family lived in Bakersfield, Calif. Nevertheless, the song became a Heartland anthem in response to the counter-culture movement of the late 60’s.
“Working Man Blues”
Merle Haggard knew the life and struggles of blue-collar workers first hand because he worked blue-collar jobs for many years. “Working Man Blues” is the essential country anthem for the American worker: “It’s a big job just getting by with five kids and a wife, but I’ve been a working man damn near all my life, and I’ll keep on working.” It’s also one of the most covered country songs of all time.
“Are the Good Times Really Over”
Merle had a God-given talent for capturing the experiences and sentiments of a generation of working Americans who saw rapid, jarring social and economic change in America, which he expressed in “Are the Good Times Really Over?” The song’s message seems just as applicable today as when it was released in the early 80’s.
Even though Haggard played every major city in the nation numerous times, he wasn’t a fan of city life — a sentiment shared by his lifelong bus driver, Dean Holloway. After a recording session in Los Angeles during the early 80’s, Holloway told Haggard, “I hate this place. I’m tired of this dirty old city.” Holloway added that he would’ve rather been off “in the middle of damn Montana.” The off-hand remark inspired Haggard to rush back into the recording studio for one last song. The band nailed “Big City” in one take. Not only is the song a fantasy we all love to dream about, but it’s also a testament to Haggard’s songwriting genius.
Haggard was a brilliant poet and songwriter. “Silver Wings,” one of his early compositions and recordings, uses the imagery of an airplane in flight to describe the heartbreaking departure of his lover. “Silver wings, shining in the sunlight, roaring engines, headed somewhere in flight.” The way that imagery rolls off Haggard’s silver voice makes for one of the most beautiful country ballads ever recorded.
Rest in peace, Merle. You will be missed dearly.