He might not have the most awards, the biggest number one hits, or even the best story, but he has something that can’t be measured, and that’s the love of his fans. With dozens of #1 hits, an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and even his own museum, Merle Haggard may not have gotten everything he wants out of life, but he has something priceless: our respect. Being one of the pioneering artists in what would become the Bakersfield sound, he helped pave the way for artists like Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam. He’s been a major influence on country music and has paid tribute to some of the greats in his own country songs. These ten best Merle Haggard songs reflect who he is as an artist and person: tough, honest, and utterly talented.
10. “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” (from the “Strangers” Album – 1965)
Starting off the list is the opening track from Merle Haggard’s debut album, “Strangers.” Written by Liz Anderson, the song laments the loss of a lover, but it’s clear that Liz is just as heartbroken over losing a friend. The track sets the tone for what is going to be an album full of songs about missing someone and wondering where they’ve gone off too – just listen to his other song “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can,” on Track 7. The song was released on 27th September 1965 by Capitol Records, the same day he released the album. It was his first single ever to make it to the US Country Charts (climbing up to no. #19 on the charts).
9. “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” (from the “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” Album – 1967)
This is another one of Merle Haggard’s songs written by Liz Anderson. It’s about a man on the run who is tired of his life and feels like he’ll never be able to go back home. It’s not clear why Merle has fled, but it looks like it might be over a lost love because he longs to go back. Released on December 1966, a year before releasing the album, the song became Merle’s first song ever to claim the number one spot on the US Country Chart, where it stayed for one whole week (and 15 weeks on the chart).
8. “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (from the “Back to the Barrooms” Album – 1980)
31-albums deeps and on a 15-years career stint, Merle decided it was time to take his lyrical themes back to the barrooms. It’s the last track on the album, and it’s about a man who is tired of life and everything that comes with it, so all he wants is to drown himself in whisky and forget about all the things he has to take care of. The song would become Merle’s 26th number-one single on the US Country Chart (where it stayed for one week – and 12 weeks on the chart).
7. “If We Make It Through December” (from the “If We Make It Through December” Album – 1974)
It’s a personal favorite of Merle songs for so many people, and it’s also one of the most reflective. It’s a song of hope, and not categorically a Christmas song as some people might believe, but it’s one of the best songs about what Christmas is really about. Released in the US in December 1973, this song showcases just how great of a country singer Merle is. The song made it to number one on the Billboard Magazine Hot Country Singles Chart (for fours week) and cracked the top 30 on the US Hot 100 Chart.
6. “Mama Tried” (from the “Mama Tried” Album – 1968)
Before releasing this song, Merle already had four number one hits under his belt. “Mama Tried” would make the fifth. In this song, Merle Laments about the pain he has caused his mother by going to jail. He’s asking for forgiveness and reminding his mother that she did a good job raising him and that he’s sorry for the mistakes he made and letting her down. The song was released in September 1968, where it quickly reached number four on the US Country Chart. In 1999, it would win the Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
5. “Big City” (from the “Big City” Album – 1981)
After a gruesome 48 hours of recording 23 songs, Haggard’s bands were packing when he stepped aside and one of his bandmates, Dean Holloway, started complaining about the grueling heat, uttering the words “I’m Tired of this Dirty Old City.” Immediately, Haggard ran back to the studio, and with the help of his friend, Holloway, penned what would be one of Merle’s most popular songs. The song peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Country Album Charts. On the backup are Don Markham and Norm Hamlet of the Strangers.
4. “Today I Started Loving You Again” (from the “the Fighting Side of Me” Live Album – 1970)
“Today I Started Loving You Again” is a song written by Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens. The song first appeared in his 1968 album, “the Legend of Bonnie and Clyde.” However, it didn’t perform well as expected, prompting Merle to re-record it with a faster tempo and release it as a single and part of his 1970 live album. The song is about a man who has recently gone through a divorce but can’t get over his ex-wife for some reason. He craves the life they had together, especially their good times. Released in November 1970, the song made it to number 86 on US Billboard Hot 100 Singles and number 16 on US Billboard Hot Country Singles.
3. “Okie From Muskogee” (from the “Okie from Muskogee” Album – 1969)
This song is about a man who doesn’t appreciate what’s going on in the country. He thinks that everyone is too liberal and has no sense of right or wrong. The song would make it to number one on the US Country Chart (for four weeks) and number 41 on the US Hot 100 Chart (for two weeks). It also reached number 3 in Canada and number 4 in Australia.
2. “Sing Me Back Home” (from the “Sing Me Back Home” Album – 1968)
This is Merle at his finest. According to Merle, the song was inspired by his friend and fellow inmate at San Quentin (who got executed). It’s one of Merle’s most emotional songs, and it’s an inspiration to anyone who has ever dealt with or felt the loss of a loved one. The song was released in November 1967 and was Merle’s third song ever to reach number on the Billboard Country Chart. The song would stay on the chart for 17 weeks. It’s ranked #32 as one of the saddest country songs of all time.
1 “Live This Long” (from the “Django and Jimmie” Album – 2015)
“Live this Long” was released as part of Merle’s duet album with Willie Nelson, “Django and Jimmie.” The two legends teamed up to reflect on their youth in this song. They gloriously sing about what they learned, what they miss, and what they wish they could have done differently. The chorus gets a bit pensive, after they intone, “We could have taken much better care of ourselves if we had known we were going to live this long.” This would be the sixth and last collaborative album between the two legends. Merle would die a year later after the album was released.