Merle Haggard was one of the greatest influences on modern country singers and songwriters. The icon's quintessential country sound was the basis for songs that would eventually become country classics and American Songbook standards.
From blue-collar anthems like "Workin’ Man Blues" and "If We Make It Through December," to patriotic commentary like "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" and autobiographical tales like "Mama Tried" and "Branded Man," we hope that we did justice in picking songs that best represent the career of this Country Music Hall of Famer.
"That’s the Way Love Goes"From ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’ (1983)
By the time this song was recorded, Merle Haggard was considered a legend in country music. With 20 years of hits already to his credit, he took a moment to honor one of his main musical influences, Lefty Frizzell. Penned by Frizzell and songwriting legend Whitey Shafer, Haggard’s version of "That’s the Way Love Goes" nabbed a Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance.
"Today I Started Loving You Again"From ‘The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard’ (1972)
Merle Haggard penned several of his great hits, but he had more success with this song as a writer than as its singer. Haggard’s version of "Today I Started Loving You Again" didn't chart, but the song would become an American Songbook standard thanks to renditions by Sammi Smith, Emmylou Harris, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, plus several others from all genres, which is why it makes our list of the Top 10 Merle Haggard Songs.
"I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink"From ‘Back to the Barrooms’ (1980)
Merle Haggard had several barroom songs to his credit. "Swinging Doors," "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Misery and Gin," "C.C. Waterback" and "Rainbow Stew" were all great songs to drink by. However, we selected "I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink" as the best of the drinkin’ batch. The song was recently re-cut as a duet with Merle Haggard on Hank Williams, Jr.’s new album, Old School, New Rules.
"If We Make It Through December"From ‘If We Make It Through December’ (1974)
Writing songs about hard times in America was Merle Haggard’s forte. A good example of that was the song that spoke of family struggles during the holiday season. "If We Make It Through December" is a perennial favorite at country radio all these years later, due in part to the fact that many hard-working parents can still relate to the message of hoping to just make it through what is supposed to be "the most wonderful time of the year."
"The Fightin’ Side of Me"From ‘The Fightin’ Side of Me’ 1970
"The Fightin’ Side of Me," aimed at Vietnam protesters, was a controversial recording. However, Haggard told Tom Roland of Billboard’s No. 1 Country Hits that he wanted fans to know that he wasn’t saying that "you can’t stand up and say what you believe in, that’s one of the most important rights we have." Instead, he told Billboard, "If we hadn’t defended our way of living, American way of life in the past, there wouldn’t be anything to tear up today."
"Workin’ Man Blues"From ‘A Portrait of Merle Haggard’ (1969)
Honoring the core base of his loyal following, at the height of his career, Merle Haggard recorded an anthem for the overworked and underpaid everyday American worker. "Workin’ Man Blues" soared to No. 1, again giving the Bakersfield, California native another self-penned chart topper. This 45 record is a must-have on our list of the Top 10 Merle Haggard Songs.
"Branded Man"From ‘Branded Man’ (1967)
"Branded Man" was another autobiographical hit for Merle Haggard. As a young man spending time in prison for burglary, he wanted to put his feelings on paper, telling the story of an ex-convict trying to change and make his way back into the world. Ironically, while doing time in San Quentin, Haggard was able to attend one of the famous Johnny Cash prison concerts.
"Big City"From ‘Big City’ (1981)
Merle Haggard co-wrote this song with longtime friend Dean Holloway. As the two walked around California, where they were making an album, they became disgusted with the city’s dirty sidewalks, and it sparked the idea for a new song powered by twin fiddles. It features Leona Williams, Haggard’s wife at the time, on background vocals.
"Okie From Muskogee"From ‘Okie From Muskogee’ (1969)
Merle Haggard once again hit a nerve with his fanbase when he recorded what would become his signature song — "Okie From Muskogee." The song was inspired when Haggard and one of his band members saw a road sign for Muskogee, and one of them commented that they probably didn’t smoke marijuana. They began feeding off that line centered around a right-wing political view. After many years and changes in life, Haggard later changed his tune about politics, with recordings like "That’s the News" and a song for Hillary Clinton, proclaiming "Let’s Put a Woman in Charge!"
"Mama Tried"From ‘Mama Tried’ (1968)
Inspired by his own life experiences as a wild, lawbreaking teenager, Merle Haggard honored his widowed mom, Flossie, with this song that reflected his own story that actually landed him in prison. Most of the song is true to his life, although he wasn’t doing life in prison as the song states. The next year, "Hungry Eyes" became another beautiful tribute to his mother.