Songcraft: Spotlight on Songwriters Podcast


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Reducing Merle Haggard’s recorded output to any sort of manageable list is nearly impossible.

The celebrated Country Music Hall of Famer and “poet of the common man,” who died Wednesday at age 79, reached the Top 10 on the Billboard Country Singles chart more than 70 times between 1966 and 1989. Nearly 40 of those songs climbed all the way to the No. 1 spot.

Beyond the hits, Haggard released 54 studio albums as a solo act, 10 collaborative albums with other artists, 11 live releases and five additional studio albums spotlighting his legendary band, the Strangers.

Though he is regarded as one of the greatest American songwriters of all time, Haggard often recorded material by others. Several of his No. 1 hits are memorable interpretations of songs such as “The Roots of My Raising” by fellow Bakersfield Sound legend Tommy Collins and “You Take Me For Granted” by Leona Williams, who was married to Haggard from 1978 to 1983.

Perhaps one of his best performances is “That’s the Way Love Goes,” a tune penned by Whitey Shafer with Merle’s childhood hero, Lefty Frizzell. To best understand Merle Haggard, however, there’s no better starting point than the songs that came from his own pen. Here are a handful of the essentials:

1. “Mama Tried” (1968) — No. 1 single
From the “Mama Tried” album (Capitol Records)

He might not have been doing life without parole as the lyrics claim, but Haggard did turn 21 in prison, thanks largely to a wandering spirit that ended in a few too many brushes with the law. The song isn’t strictly autobiographical, but it’s pretty darn close.

Most of the elements of Merle’s real life are here: respect for mama, the restlessness that comes from losing a father at a young age, stubborn individuality, the importance of personal responsibility and even the romance of a lonesome train whistle that would call out to Haggard’s sense of adventure his entire life.

Breezy and melodic, but wrapped in Telecaster twang, “Mama Tried” captures the essence of an artist just hitting his stride as a bona fide country star. In 1999 this career-defining single was recognized by the prestigious Grammy Hall of Fame, which honors recordings of “lasting qualitative or historical significance.”

2. “Big City” (1981) — No. 1 single
From the “Big City” album (Epic Records)

When Haggard’s tour bus driver and longtime friend Dean Holloway commented that he was “tired of this dirty old city” during a trip to a Los Angeles recording studio, Merle heard a great opening line. Legend has it that he wrote the song on the spot, returned to the studio minutes later and recorded it with his band in just one take.

The twin fiddles harken back to the sound of Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, who was one of Haggard’s greatest influences. Lyrically, it exemplifies two of Haggard’s most commonly recurring themes: a longing for freedom and the plight of the hard-working everyman who just can’t seem to get ahead.

The album was Haggard’s first for the Epic label, and he sounds reinvigorated to be starting fresh once again. The fans agreed, and “Big City” became Haggard’s first studio album to be certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

3. “Branded Man” (1967) — No. 1 single
From the “Branded Man / I Threw Away the Rose” album (Capitol Records)

Though Haggard spent nearly three years in San Quentin State Prison, he wrote relatively few autobiographical songs about the experience. “Branded Man,” however, is a poignant snapshot of an ex-con who has served his time but must live with the mark of shame placed on him by a society that stigmatizes former prisoners.

With themes of personal pride, quiet defiance and a struggle to overcome obstacles beyond one’s own control, this is a classic Haggard lyric perfectly punctuated by the sparse but biting fretwork of longtime lead guitarist Roy Nichols.

Though Haggard hit the top of the charts earlier that year with Liz Anderson’s “The Fugitive,” this was his first self-penned No. 1 hit. The LP later appeared on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

4. “Silver Wings” (1969) — non-single
From the “A Portrait of Merle Haggard” album (Capitol Records)

Though it appeared on the B-side of “Workin’ Man Blues,” “Silver Wings” was not released as a single. It remained a staple of Haggard’s live performances, and stands as a testament to his unparalleled skill for capturing genuine emotion in powerfully few words.

The entire song includes only eight lines of lyrics, and that’s all it takes to make you feel the stabbing pain of the heartbroken lover who’s been left behind. The gorgeous string arrangement is a reminder that Haggard was as much a master of buttery smoothness as he was tough honky-tonk grit.

5. “Ramblin’ Fever” (1977) — No. 2 single
From the “Ramblin’ Fever” album (MCA Records)

After more than a decade with Capitol Records, Haggard switched to MCA for 1977’s “Ramblin’ Fever” LP. He wrote only two of the songs on the album, but the title track is a perfectly stated testament to the restlessness Haggard could never shake.

The “lonesome whistle” that appears in many of his best compositions is back and, as always, it’s calling him to leave his responsibilities behind so he can roam freely. It’s an echo of the rambling spirit of Jimmie Rodgers, the “Singing Brakeman” who was another of Haggard’s childhood musical heroes.

Though Haggard most often recorded with his own band, “Ramblin’ Fever” was cut in Nashville with top-notch studio musicians who give the single a somewhat slicker sheen than the organic sound fans had grown accustomed to. The line “I want to die along the highway” rings especially bittersweet, considering the Hag did his best to stay on the road playing gigs as long as possible.

“It’s what keeps me alive and it’s what f**ks up my life,” Merle said of touring in a 2016 interview with Matt Hendrickson.

6. “I Started Loving You Again” (1968) — non-single
From “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” album (Capitol Records)

Though it appeared on the B-side of the “Bonnie and Clyde” single, the song that later came to be known as “Today I Started Loving You Again” was surprisingly never a major success for Haggard as an artist.

Sammi Smith had a Top 10 country hit with it in 1975, but it’s also been a charting single for everyone from schmaltzy pop crooner Al Martino to R&B legend Bobby “Blue” Bland. By some estimates, it’s the Haggard song that’s been recorded by more artists than any other.

The achingly beautiful ballad was both inspired by and co-credited to Bonnie Owens, who was Haggard’s second wife, harmony singer and musical right hand. He often recognized the former wife of fellow Bakersfield pioneer Buck Owens as the spark that really got his career started in the 1960s.

7. “If We Make it Through December” (1973) — No. 1
From the “If We Make it Through December” album (Capitol Records)

Though it’s come to be thought of as a Christmas song, the familiar Haggard theme of an honest blue-collar working man who’s barely hanging on doesn’t exactly ring with holiday cheer. The tale of a father whose “little girl don’t understand why daddy can’t afford no Christmas gift” was not only a country hit but became Haggard’s highest charter on the pop rankings when it reached No. 28.

Despite the bleak narrative, the lyric isn’t without hope. Haggard could masterfully convey heartbreak and defeat in his lyrics, but his characters are rarely entirely broken. Instead, they’re usually in search of a way forward, even as they face seemingly insurmountable challenges.

8. “Kern River” (1985) — No. 10 single
From the “Kern River” album (Epic Records)

My previous comments about the kernels of hope in Haggard’s lyrics aside, “Kern River” is both an understated and crushingly sad ballad about a man whose love was swept away and killed by the deceptively dangerous waters of the Kern River. It’s a fine example of how Haggard could draw on real-life people and places to construct fictional narratives packed with emotional power.

9. “Footlights” (1979) — non-single
From the “Serving 190 Proof” album (MCA Records)

Another recurring theme in Haggard’s work is the process of coming to grips with the passage of time. “Footlights” is the opening track for one of Haggard’s best albums, and is a deeply personal meditation on aging from the perspective of the then-41-year-old Haggard.

Though the audience expects him to be an energetic and rebellious performer, he’s losing his youthful fire. The tricky part is that he doesn’t know what else to do and he’s “got no place to go when it’s over.”

Haggard struggled with the demands of fame and, like fellow songwriting legend Bob Dylan, resented being pigeonholed, directed or having the unrealistic expectations of others placed on him. Nevertheless, making music was what he loved and what he knew how to do. It was his calling.

What would happen, he wondered in his early 40s, as he continued to age in a business that prized the contributions of the young? We now know it worked out just fine, but at the time it was a legitimate fear for the newly middle-aged Haggard as he faced the dawning of a new decade. Such lyrical vulnerability is almost unimaginable for a chart-topping country hit maker today.

10. “Okie From Muskogee” (1969) — No. 1 single
An alternate version appeared on the “Okie From Muskogee” live album (Capitol Records)

Though Haggard was already a country star, it was this politically charged anti-hippie anthem that catapulted him onto the national stage and made him a polarizing figure in the early days of the so-called culture wars. Nixon’s “silent majority” embraced it as an anthem, while the counterculture that previously celebrated Haggard as a poet of the common man was repulsed.

Muddying the waters, Haggard wasn’t always consistent in his explanation of the meaning behind the song that won the single of the year honor at both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music awards. At times he defended the lyrics by disparaging anti-war activists, while at other times he claimed the whole thing was actually a big joke.

Either way, Haggard ultimately came to resent the fact that he was expected to be a poster boy for anyone’s political agenda. Haggard’s own views — like those of most Americans — were evolving in that turbulent era.

“The hippies didn’t believe in the war,” Haggard explained years later to author Deke Dickerson, “and it irritated me. . . . They were doing things that I thought were un-American. Well, it wasn’t un-American, they were smarter than me!

”Kids are always smarter than the old folks. They see through our bigotry and our hypocrisy.”

Haggard remained both opinionated and fiercely independent for the rest of his life. His views are perhaps best understood in the lyrics of a song called “Somewhere in Between” that he recorded in 1971, but did not release: “I stand looking at the left wing, and I turn toward the right / And either side don’t look too good examined under light / That’s just freedom of opinion, and their legal right to choose / That’s one right I hope we never lose.”

11. “Tulare Dust” (1971) — non-single
From the “Someday We’ll Look Back” album (Capitol Records)

Like many before them, Haggard’s parents migrated from Oklahoma to California in search of new economic opportunities. Those migrants helped shape the Bakersfield country music community that would eventually create an artistic environment that allowed Haggard to come into his own as a singer, songwriter and musician.

He frequently sang about labor camps, field workers and the migrant experience. One of the best examples is this ode to the farming community 60 miles north of Bakersfield: “Tulare dust in a farm boy’s nose,” he sings, “wonderin’ where the freight train goes.

“And I miss Oklahoma, but I’ll stay if I must. And help make a livin’ in the Tulare dust.”

12. “Workin’ Man Blues” (1969) — No. 1 single
From the “A Portrait of Merle Haggard” album (Capitol Records)

The familiar themes of personal freedom and wanderlust are present once again in this late 1960s classic, but this time they’re mere fantasies. As Haggard sings, “Sometimes I think about leaving / Do a little bummin’ around / I wanna throw my bills out the window / Catch a train to another town / But I go back working…”

While the character in the song might long to escape, he knows he can’t. He has responsibilities and commitments to others. It’s a reminder of the sense of loyalty that was a hallmark of Haggard’s own career.

Local Bakersfield music legends such as Lewis Talley, Fuzzy Owen, Bonnie Owens and Norm Hamlet, who supported his career back in the 1960s, remained a part of Haggard’s organization for decades. There were ups and downs, but those who worked for Haggard often felt they were part of a family.

13. “Irma Jackson” (1972) — non-single
From the “Let Me Tell You About a Song album” (Capitol Records)

Though it wasn’t released until 1972, Haggard recorded this interracial love story in November of 1969, about a week before “Okie From Muskogee” hit No. 1 on the country chart. Early in his career Haggard had recorded a version of Tommy Collins’ “Piedras Negras (Go Home),” which tells of an ill-fated love affair with a woman who has “dark skin and dark eyes and dark wavy hair.”

As with “Irma Jackson,” that song ends with the lovers separated by the intense pressures of societal prejudice. Nobody seemed to notice that mid-1960s statement, but things were different for Haggard by the end of the decade. Haggard was quickly becoming a hero to the political right, thanks to “Okie From Muskogee.”

Consequently, his record label discouraged him from releasing a song about an African-American lover with lines such as “If my lovin’ Irma Jackson is a sin / Then I don’t understand this crazy world we’re livin’ in.” Haggard knew “Irma Jackson” was a disarming counterbalance to the persona he was establishing with “Okie,” which was likely part of his motivation for wanting to release it.

Remember, one of the forces Haggard most strongly resisted was being pigeonholed. Nevertheless, he capitulated to the label’s wishes and instead saved “Irma Jackson” for the “Let Me Tell You About a Song” LP. It became the CMA’s Album of the Year for 1972.

“Of all the songs I’ve written,” Haggard explained in the spoken introduction, “this might be my favorite, because it tells it like it is.”

14. “Wishing All These Things Were New” (2000) — non-single
From the “If I Could Only Fly” album (Anti-Records)

After a disappointing stint on Curb Records in the 1990s, Haggard began the new millennium with a fresh perspective. He had gotten control of the substance abuse problems that had once plagued him; he was several happy years into his fifth (and final) marriage; he had two young children to whom he was determined to be a better father than he’d been with his now-adult children from his first marriage; and he had already been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, establishing his status as a living legend.

Haggard had nothing to prove and no desire to keep chasing elusive country radio hits in a rapidly changing marketplace. Instead, he signed with Anti- Records, a division of Epitaph, which is best known as a punk rock label. The stripped-down “If I Could Only Fly” album found the grizzled poet reflecting on his mortality to near-universal critical acclaim.

Though Haggard readily admitted that he was a man who’d made mistakes, he didn’t believe in living with regret.

“If I could start all over, guess I’d still do what I do,” he sings in “Wishing All These Things Were New.” It was a theme he would revisit regularly in his later work. Haggard, like most of us, had done things he wished he hadn’t, but he learned to make peace with the past and live with self-acceptance.

15. “You Don’t Have Far to Go” (1964) — non-single
From the B-side of the “Sam Hill” single (Tally Records)

Haggard’s recording career began under the direction of Lewis Talley and Fuzzy Owen for their Bakersfield-based Tally label. One of those early tracks he recorded was “You Don’t Have Far to Go,” a song originally conceived by fellow Bakersfield Sound pioneer Red Simpson.

Simpson got the idea for the song while running late to his job in Johnny Barnett’s house band at the Lucky Spot nightclub on Edison Highway. He and Haggard, who was playing bass in the same group and did not yet have a recording contract, finished the song later.

After debuting on Haggard’s third Tally single, it cropped up again on his first Capitol LP, “Strangers.” A newly recorded version appeared as “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” on the “Branded Man / I Threw Away the Rose” LP in 1967. Then Merle recorded it yet again for his “Big City” album in the early 1980s.

It’s one of Haggard’s great heartbreak songs and a reminder that if he believed in something he would see it through. Haggard once told Simpson, “I’m gonna keep cuttin’ it until it’s a hit!”

16. “Swinging Doors” (1966) — No. 5 single
From the “Swinging Doors” album (Capitol Records)

The first national charting single written by Haggard was “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can,” which only reached the No. 42 position. His second self-penned charter was “Swinging Doors,” which climbed all the way to No. 5, making Haggard both a hit-making artist and songwriter.

Confessional songs about restlessness and the pursuit of personal freedom were one of Haggard’s strengths, but he was just as skilled at the grand tradition of country drinkin’ songs. An example of such classics is the No. 1 single “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” from 1980’s “Back to the Barrooms” album, but one of the best is “Swinging Doors.”

The story of a hopeless man who gave up his love and has taken up residence in a bar where he’s now “always here at home ‘til closing time” will have you crying in your beers as fast as you can drink ‘em down.

17. “Pretty When It’s New” (2010) — non-single
From the “I Am What I Am” album (Vanguard Records)

Haggard was always vocal about the influence that Country Music Hall of Famers Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers and Lefty Frizzell had on him as an artist, but he also held a deep appreciation for Tin Pan Alley pop standards and the crooning sound of vocalists such as Bing Crosby. There’s a touch of melancholy in Haggard’s jazz-tinged “Pretty When It’s New,” which declares “Love is always pretty when it’s new / Hey, there’s nothing bad about it ‘til your lover says ‘we’re through’.”

Nevertheless, it’s essentially a breezy and bouncy celebration of new love that sounds like a forgotten tune from the Great American Songbook. Haggard was characterized as a hardcore country outlaw, but he also had a sweet romantic center that was at the heart of his entire career and remained on full display in his underrated later work.

18. “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star” (1987) — No. 1 single
From the “Chill Factor” album (Epic Records)

Haggard appeared on the cover of Downbeat magazine in 1980, which dubbed him a “country jazz messiah.” The controversial decision to celebrate a country musician in the pages of the hallowed jazz publication resulted in some heated letters to the editor, most famously by bandleader Stan Kenton.

Whether the jazz establishment approved or not, however, that music was part of Haggard’s diverse artistic DNA. Some of those strains, along with pop and doo-wop influences, can be heard in Haggard’s final No. 1 hit, “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star.” Written with Freddy Powers, it’s a record that reminds listeners that Haggard wasn’t afraid to use horns, strings or any other “non-country” instrument to get his musical ideas across.

19. “Sometimes I Dream” (1990) — non-single
From the “Blue Jungle” album (Curb Records)

Though his 1990s recordings for the Curb label were some of his least commercially successful, there are quite a few gems from that era that shouldn’t be overlooked.

One is the understated “Sometimes I Dream,” which Haggard later re-recorded for his “Working in Tennessee” album in 2011. It’s sung from the perspective of a man whose heart has broken: “Seldom I laugh and seldom I ever cry / But there’s times when I drink too much and times when I lie.”

It’s a recognition that we humans have a tendency to deal with our feelings in self-destructive ways. It was a path Haggard knew from his own experience, but he had enough perspective to effectively channel those tendencies into brilliant songwriting.

20. “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)” (1981) — No. 2 single
From the “Big City” album (Epic Records)

Beginning in the early 1980s, Haggard’s lyrics frequently turned to nostalgia-oriented themes. One of the best-known examples is this ACM song of the year winner, which longs for a simpler time “before Nixon lied to us all on TV.”

The lyrics are about the loss of innocence that came with the advent of Vietnam, the proliferation of illegal drugs, the decline of quality manufacturing standards, the technological innovations that distanced us from the tactile experience of personal productivity, and even changes in gender politics. In other words, it covers a lot of ground as it laments the passing of an American Dream that perhaps never really existed to begin with.

Rather than being heavy-handed, Haggard constructs the song as a series of questions for the listener to ponder. “Is the best of the free life behind us now? Are the good times really over for good?” By the end of the song we find that familiar kernel of hope as he answers his own question, “The best of the free life is still yet to come. The good times ain’t over for good.”

It’s that final twist at the end that raises another question: Was Haggard a man who looked toward the past or toward the future? The answer is yes.

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