Over the course of his 50 year career, Merle Haggard scored over 30 No. 1 hits, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award and an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. With his band, the Strangers, he helped popularize the Bakersfield Sound. He left an indelible mark on country music with tunes of regret and redemption (“Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home”), country love song standards (“Today I Started Loving You Again”) and honky tonk staples like “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “Swinging Doors,” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”
But a catalog like Haggard’s deserves to be examined closely. Not just listened to, but pored over. Because beyond his hits, there’s a score of great deep cuts and underrated singles waiting to be discovered. From a classic Bakersfield duet with Bonnie Owens to a heartfelt goodbye to a friend, here are 12 rare gems from Merle Haggard.
Haggard’s marriage to Bonnie Owens lasted 13 years, but the two remained lifelong friends and collaborators. Their 1966 album Just Between the Two of Us showcases the Bakersfield duo’s harmonies. “Stranger in My Arms,” a country gold weeper about a couple all too aware of their withering relationship, is Bonnie and Merle at their best.
“Holding Things Together,” a Haggard-penned tune from 1974, is a devastating track about a broken family and a single father trying to keep it together for his daughter. The song was later recorded by Dwight Yoakam in 1994 for a Haggard tribute album and Vince Gill and Paul Franklin for their 2014 Bakersfield album.
Haggard planned on “Irma Jackson” being the follow-up single to “Okie From Muskogee.” But Capitol Records feared that the song about interracial marriage and racism would upset the audience that had flocked to Haggard upon the release of the seemingly conservative anthem “Okie From Muskogee.” Haggard released “Fightin’ Side Of Me” instead, which went on to become one of his signature songs. But the singer recorded “Irma Jackson” just three years later for 1972’s Let Me Tell You About a Song. The song never charted, but it was representative of Haggard’s true character and willingness to take a stand against narrow-mindedness and bigotry even when it was unpopular.
Haggard had a knack for creating a sense of place in his songs. From the labor camp in “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” to the California farmland worked by Oklahoma transplants in “Tulare Dust,” from the 1971 album Someday We’ll Look Back. “I miss Oklahoma but I’ll stay if I must/ and try to make a living in the Tulare dust,” Haggard sings in this tune that traces his own lineage from Oklahoma to southern California.
Written by Haggard, Freddy Powers, Gary Church and Tex Whitson, the suave “I Always Get Lucky With You” from 1981’s Big City was never released as a single by Haggard. But George Jones’ 1983 recording of the cavalier track went on to become the last No. 1 hit of his career.
“I got a right to lose my mind if I can’t stand the pain,” Haggard sings, backed by airtight harmonies and a hard-driving Telecaster on this track from Branded Man. Clocking in at just over two minutes, “Gone Crazy” is quintessential Merle Haggard and the Strangers.
“Honky Tonk Night Time Man,” from the 1974 album Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Record, finds the Hag channeling his hero Jimmie Rodgers with a slice of down-home country blues. Southern rock heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd covered the song for their 1977 album Street Survivors.
When you have a catalog as solid as Haggard’s, you’re allowed to dip back in to your past tracks for new inspiration. “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go” was originally recorded for Haggard’s 1965 debut album Strangers but the song got an update for the Hag’s Big City album. The sorrowful tune was later covered by Suzy Bogguss and Lucinda Williams.
Haggard’s 2000 album If I Could Only Fly is one of his greatest and most underrated records. With country radio having turned its back on the country legend, Haggard signed with the independent record label ANTI and recorded one of the best albums of his career. The opening track “Wishing All These Old Things Were New” is a winner from the first line: “Watching while some old friends do a line/ holding back the want to in my own addicted mind.” The song finds one of country’s greatest storytellers reflecting on his own past and making peace with his place in the world.
“Roses in the Winter,” from 1979’s Serving 190 Proof is one of Haggard’s most hopeful and gorgeous songs, yet it remains one of his lesser-known tunes.
Written by Red Lane, Boyce Porter and Bucky Jones, this tune from 1977’s Ramblin’ Fever has been recorded by country legends George Jones and Johnny Bush, but Haggard’s take on the equally sultry and crushing song is a three minute heartache and a downright perfect country song.
The title track from Haggard’s 2000 record is a recording of Blaze Foley’s “If I Could Only Fly,” a breathtaking song about loss and grief. Haggard recorded the song at age 63 and its easy to imagine that the song encapsulated his own experiences. Haggard had always been a master of evoking loneliness and heartbreak, but it had never been as gorgeously stark and tender as it was on “If I Could Only Fly.”