Friday Five: Merle Haggard

Ken Morton, Jr. | April 6th, 2012

The great Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Haggard turns 75 today. Amazingly, he’s had four unique career musical storylines. He got his start with The Strangers playing the Bakersfield Sound that he and Buck Owens would make so unique. The Hag then got his major-label start as one of the major Nashville Sound players back in the early and mid sixties. When the outlaw movement started in the 1970s, Haggard was front and center along with pals Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. As he’s reached his AARP years, he’s continued his critical success with a series of well-received independent varied projects. Through it all, Merle Haggard has been the country voice of a generation– actually, the country voice of several generations. What are your favorite Hag songs?

5. “If We Make It Through December”

Released on a Christmas album of the same name, this single spent four weeks at #1 on the Billboard country charts for four weeks in late December 1973 and into January 1974.


4. Workin’ Man Blues

This little 1969 #1 gem could epitomize Haggard better than any other song. When Haggard was released from San Quentin, he was literally a ditch-digger before his music career would take off. Not too many gigs could make you bluer than that.


3. “Mama Tried”

Listen to this Haggard rap sheet: arrested and sentenced to prison for three years for an attempted robbery on a tavern. Ran a gambling racket from his jail cell. Nearly escaped with another inmate nicknamed “Rabbit.” Maybe Mama should have tried harder.


2. “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)”

Are we rolling down hill like a snowball headed for hell? With no kind of chance for the flag or the Liberty Bell. Wish a Ford and a Chevy, could still last ten years, like they should. Is the best of the free life behind us now? Are the good times really over for good? This was released back in 1982. It reminds that the more things change, the more they stay the same.


1. “Okie From Muskogee”

Haggard explains the inspiration behind the song: “When I was in prison, I knew what it was like to have freedom taken away. Freedom is everything. During Vietnam, there were all kinds of protests. Here were these [servicemen] going over there and dying for a cause- we don’t even know what it was really all about. And here are these young kids that were free, bitching about it. There’s something wrong with that and with [disparaging] those poor guys.”


  1. Jeremy Dylan
    April 6, 2012 at 7:50 am

    I declare this list deficient in both misery and gin!

  2. Juli Thanki
    April 6, 2012 at 8:07 am

    I don’t think I could narrow down my favorite Haggard recordings to five (or ten), so props to Ken for giving it a go. “Out Among the Stars” and “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” would be on my list, though.

    The A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (Or, My Salute to Bob Wills) LP may be the best $10 I’ve ever spent.

  3. Barry M
    April 6, 2012 at 9:02 am

    Agreed tht it’s imposisble to pick just five, but if it wuz me, I’d have to have “Today I Started Lovin’ You Again” in there. I’m hoping to see Merle at the Ryman Wednesday night. In any case, some of the key Strangers will be on a panel at the Hall of Fame the same day.

  4. Brody
    April 6, 2012 at 9:16 am

    A couple favorites of mine are “Sing Me Back Home” and “If I Could Only Fly.” And the best (known) version of “Pancho & Lefty” is only half a song without the Hag.

  5. luckyoldsun
    April 6, 2012 at 10:14 am

    I guess “Okie” has to be at the top for its historical significance, but “I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver” is pretty lame, lyrically. I’d replace it with “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am,”–an early classic.

  6. Leeann
    April 6, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Choosing five Haggard songs is definitely impossoble. Ditto to Barry though.

  7. Rick
    April 6, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    My all time favorite Hag song is “The Fightin’ Side of Me”! I can just imagine Merle back in the late 60’s singing that song to a squirrley leftist hippie joker like Obama and then beating the crap out of him just for good measure! Kind of makes my heart sing just thinkin’ about it…

    My second choice would probably be “Mama’s Hungry Eyes”. I can’t think of a song that better describes how the treatment of the “Oakies” in the San Joaquin Valley helped give rise to the Bakersfield Sound movement. Truly an anthem for those migrants who lived through the grapes of wrath era of the great depression.

  8. Paul W Dennis
    April 6, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    It’s hard to pick out just five favrites, but if I had to, then these would be it:

    1) I Can’t Be Myself
    2) Sing Me Back Home
    3) Today I Started Loving You Again
    4) Sidewalks of Chicago
    5) Swinging Doors

  9. Jon
    April 6, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    “Swinging Drawers, er, Doors!”

  10. Jon
    April 7, 2012 at 12:48 am

    Also, “I Always Get Lucky With You.”

  11. Ben Foster
    April 7, 2012 at 10:27 am

    I really like “I Can’t Be Myself.”

  12. luckyoldsun
    April 7, 2012 at 10:47 am

    “My all time favorite Hag song is “The Fightin’ Side of Me”! I can just imagine Merle back in the late 60′s singing that song to a squirrley leftist hippie joker like Obama and then beating the crap out of him just for good measure!”

    I guess the key word is “imagine.”
    It’s always amusing when people who didn’t serve are gung-ho for doing violence to or challenging the patrtiotism/masculinity of others (including, even some who served). I don’t recall hearing of Merle ever wearing a uniform (other than one with stripes).

    Hag, at least, is all over the map, so if you like/don’t like one of his songs for its political sentiment, you can probably find another that seems to express a totally opposite point of view.

  13. Barry Mazor
    April 8, 2012 at 10:16 am

    It should also be noted, for the record, that Merle has, in recent years, on the record, pointed out that, as he sees it now, the people he criticized in the likes of “Fightin” Side of Me” were “proven right” by history.

    And if you get a chance to hear Merle’s not very well-known politically measured song recorded almost immediately after “Fightin’ Side,” called “Somewhere in Between,” (it’s only on one of the Bear Family sets) you’ll see that he’s no natural friend of belligerence, or a friend of belittling name calling at all.

  14. luckyoldsun
    April 8, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    Hag has a nasty, paranoid, self-righteous, self-contradictory streak when it comes to political “analysis”/expression.

    In addition to the agressive “Fighting Side,” there’s “Big City”–where his character simultaneously expresses the desire to stop working and enjoy retirement in Montana, while renouncing his retirement benefits and “so-called Social Security”; “Me and Crippled Soldiers,” where Haggard suggests that if you believe in the right to burn a flag, then you’re FOR flag-burning–and for burning the Bill of Rights, as well!

    But Haggard has also sung sympathetically of exploited undocumented Mexican immigrants and the homeless–at the same time that these groups were the targets of vitriol from the likes of Rush Limbaugh. And I seem to recall seeing an interview with him four years ago where he said he was supporting Hillary Clinton for President.

    I buy Haggard’s CD’s for the music but I don’t look to him for political wisdom.

  15. Razor X
    April 9, 2012 at 11:59 am

    One of my favorite Haggard tunes that no one’s mentioned yet: “You Take Me For Granted”.

  16. SunsetPark
    April 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Silver Wings is a good one also, not along the lines of much of his more familiar work. All are keepers though.

Tagged In This Article

Current Discussion

  • Paige: Oh damn. :( I never commented here and I haven't been listening to any music at all since Thanksgiving (it …
  • Dave W.: Just read the news here. Will miss E145 very much - love this site. All the best to you Juli …
  • Leeann Ward: Oh, dang! This is real. Farewell to the most generous, informative, quality, intelligent, consistent, ethical country music blog! You …
  • bll: Thanks Juli for all the great articles and information; you'll be missed by me and I suss several others. Best …
  • Both Kinds of Music: I hope people appreciate the irony that one of the best "Americana" albums is titled Metamodern Sounds in COUNTRY Music.
  • Barry Mazor: I would not rule out that possibility..There's a different set of voters involved..
  • Dana M: Does anyone else think that Brandy Clark actually has a good chance of winning since this isn't a country awards …
  • Juli Thanki: UPDATE: Brandy Clark got a Best New Artist nom. BEST AMERICANA ALBUM: Rosanne Cash -- The River & The Thread John Hiatt -- Terms …
  • luckyoldsun: Glenn Campbell is great and I'd love to see him get an award, but the words of that song may …
  • Casey Penn: Juli, it was an honor to write for you here on You're good at what you do, and The …

Recently Reviewed Albums

  • walkerandthetexasdangers3
  • deadmanstown
  • tom t hall storytellers
  • paulthorntooblessed
  • duhksbeyondtheblue
  • kelleymickwee
  • sandrarhodes
  • candi staton