Classic country music playlists seem empty without multiple Merle Haggard songs, and there’s quite a few selections worth playing in between the Hanks of Nashville (Williams and Snow) and the Kings of Texas (Bob Wills and George Strait).
Haggard helped popularize the Bakersfield sound in his native California. His efforts to chase the sounds of Jimmie Rodgers, Lefty Frizzell and other influences, paired with the cultural imprint left by his biggest hit “Okie From Muskogee,” eventually made The Hag one of America’s defining musical voices.
There’s a reason greatest hits compilations require two or more discs when it comes to someone like Haggard. Even expanding this list from 10 to 15 leaves out some of his backing band the Strangers’ crowd-pleasers (“Lonesome Fugitive”), memorable duets with former wife Bonnie Owens (“Just Between the Two of Us”) and some great material from later in Haggard’s career (“Kern River”).
That said, if Haggard’s sons Ben and Noel used these 15 songs as a set list the next time they honor their father in a town near you, it’d make for an ideal tribute to an all-time great storyteller.
15. “Honky-Tonk Night Time Man”
Depending on tastes and reference points, this uptempo nod to the blues may excite listeners more because of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cover. Consider that a reminder of how Haggard and his Bakersfield peers’ influence expanded beyond country music.
14. “Silver Wings”
Haggard updated the old, sorrowful tale of watching an ex-lover leave town, sending her off on an airplane instead of a train. An alternate title could be “I Wonder Why Planes Make Me Lonesome?”
This moving story about a musician’s mentor pays tribute to Tommy Collins, a fellow songwriter with Oklahoma ties. Collins, born Leonard Raymond Sipes, wrote “The Roots of My Raising,” “Carolyn” and other songs recorded by Haggard.
12. “Pancho and Lefty” (With Willie Nelson)
Haggard and his old friend Willie Nelson furthered their image as modern day drifters with this stellar interpretation of a Townes Van Zandt classic. Both legends proved to have the right voices to further the cultural reach of Van Zandt’s masterpiece.
11. “Hungry Eyes”
Sometimes called “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” this Haggard single was part autobiographical. His mother really did raise a family as a single parent, following the death of her husband when Merle was only 9-years-old. The family didn’t actually live in a labor camp, though. That part of the story pays tribute to Okies’ struggles to survive the Great Depression.
10. “If We Make It Through December”
Factory lay-offs hit hard at any time of the year. Haggard considers a worker laid off around Christmas time, forcing him to dream of a better life for his young daughter after the new year. Think of it as the precursor of Jason Isbell’s “Something More Than Free.”
9. “Ramblin’ Fever”
From hobos with no place to live to roaming cowboys on the range, many great country songs celebrate the freedom of those not tied down to a regular 9-to-5 job. In this case, Haggard celebrates a musician’s unquenchable need to live out of a van, guitar case and backpack.
8. “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)”
Whether listeners perceive Haggard’s lead character as an old man behind the times or as someone rightfully missing a better America, this rant about changes in our society revisits the type of sentimentality that made country’s earliest radio stars popular.
7. “Big City”
Country folks returning to the mountain from the city for clean air to breathe and wide open spaces to enjoy can definitely relate to Haggard’s desire to ditch the bright lights for a simpler life.
6. “Swinging Doors”
Haggard modernized the stereotypical “Tear in My Beer” type of country song for the 1960s and beyond. Three songs, presented here in order, define his vision of a local bar and the sad, complicated patrons entering through those “Swinging Doors” every evening.
5. “The Bottle Let Me Down”
Sad songs about drinking to forget pop up throughout the Hag’s catalog. Here he deals with memories so bitter and sorrow so great that a drunken night just makes things worse.
4. “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”
Haggard’s greatest song of the 1980s rounds out his unofficial trilogy of barroom ballads. This time, he addressed the lonesome drinker with no where else to be besides his favorite bar stool.
3. “Working Man Blues”
Haggard honed in on his audience’s fears and triumphs once again with this ode to the common working-class person. When this one plays on the jukebox, at least one barfly more than likely hears a simplified take on their own life story.
2. “Okie From Muskogee”
With the Vietnam war raging overseas and a spirit of protest permeating pop music, Haggard offered his two cents on draft-dodging, pot-smoking types. The slightly tongue-in-cheek song spoke for much of Haggard’s audience at the time and remains his second most-obvious hit.
1. “Mama Tried”
Only Johnny Cash‘s prison albums at San Quentin and Folsom Prison played a larger role in the early formation of outlaw country’s sound and attitude than Haggard’s greatest song. His classic ode to hard living still provides the soundtrack to rowdy nights and the inspiration for tough yet tender tattoos.