The 24 Most Underrated Merle Haggard Songs
Lists provide something to argue about, and that’s what the internet is for, isn’t it? With an artist as prolific as Merle Haggard, there will always be songs that touch someone more than most, or that never got the attention they deserved. Finding such songs turns out to be easier than narrowing them down.
So, here are my top 24 Hag songs that, if you don’t know, you should. Note that in compiling this list, I’ve paid no attention to whether he wrote the song himself or not. It really doesn’t matter — he owned them all.
24. “Silver Wings” from A Portrait of Merle Haggard
At the risk of losing credibility right from the start, yes, this one is one of Hag’s better known songs, a standard in his catalog and in concerts. But you might not recall, it never charted, possibly (and almost shockingly) because it was never actually a single.
23. “Holding Things Together” from Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album
Another non-single, this song was as emotionally evocative as it gets, yet was mostly forgotten until Dwight Yoakam covered it. The simple story is of an abandoned father who is trying to hold his family together in the absence of his wife, including buying a birthday present for their daughter and sending it in mom’s name.
22. “Irma Jackson” from Let Me Tell You About a Song
This one still gets some attention, partly from people who want to remind fans that it really should have been the single right after Okie, demonstrating Hag’s liberal side. Facing opposition from his label, we got Fightin’ Side instead. I’ve written about that side of the song myself. But, while Irma Jackson’s impact wasn’t what it could have been, the song holds up and we’re left to wonder what might have been.
21. “Wake Up” from The Way I Am
This song was tucked away on what was otherwise one of Merle’s weaker albums, the one that included the one truly bad song I’ve ever heard from him, the silly Sky-bo. But the album is salvaged with this gem where Merle brings imagery to life like no one this side of the Possum, singing “Wake up, don’t just lay there like cold granite stone. Wake up, we’re too close to be alone.”
20. “Kids Get Lonesome Too” from 1996
Speaking of gems from otherwise forgotten albums, the mid-nineties weren’t kind to the Hag, partly because his label was quite unkind. But this song sticks out to me for its uniqueness. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone speak about or to children the way this song does.
19. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Lucky Star” from Chill Factor
This time, I’m really risking my credibility because TTLS was actually a number one single. But to the extent that it gets talked about today, it’s usually when people mention the fact that it was Hag’s last chart-topper. The song deserves better as it may be the best of his ‘country-jazz’ tunes.
18. “Unforgettable” from Unforgettable
Speaking of country-jazz, Haggard has certainly experimented, but he rarely steps outside his genre as he did with the 2004 album of jazz-pop covers. Reminiscent of Willie Nelson’s Stardust, the entire album is solid.
17. “Big Time Annie’s Square” from Someday We’ll Look Back
Just as with Irma Jackson, this one reminded us–or should have–of Hag’s capacity as a bridge-builder. The title character is a hanger on with a group of hippies, who presumably tolerate him because of his connection to the popular Annie. It’s better than my words can do justice.
16. “That’s the News” from Like Never Before
Another bone thrown to his liberal fans, That’s the News was a critique of the media during the war in Iraq as they focused on a Modesto murder case while soldiers were fighting abroad. Hag came out more explicitly against the war a couple of years later, to the surprise of many. I wrote recently about this one as well, partly because, as good as the song is, it was eclipsed by one with a similar topic and similar name by his friend Kris Kristofferson.
15. “Leonard” from Back to the Barrooms
Another minor hit, this one is a fan favorite as a tribute to songwriter Tommy Collins, aka Leonard Sipes. Hag tells Collins story succinctly and effectively with both compassion and humor.
14. “Don’t Ever Let Your Lover Sleep Alone” (with Leona Williams) from Heart to Heart
Given how their marriage ended, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that the duets with Leona Williams are almost lost to history. One might guess they didn’t take their own advice.
13. “I’m a White Boy” from A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today
Celebrations of whiteness tend to raise suspicion and he does border on the politically incorrect when he baits welfare recipients a bit. But the song isn’t about promoting prejudice, but rather an astute statement of what it means to be a working class white guy “just looking for a place to do my thang.” There were and are people who needed to hear it said and no one could have said it better than Haggard.
12. “The Immigrant” deom Always on a Mountain When I Fall
Lest one begin to worry about racism in his work, Merle puts out an homage to illegal immigrants. There are times when the lyrics border on stereotypes, but the song reserves its most pointed criticism for wealthy ranchers and white racists.
11. “They’re Tearing the Labor Camps Down” from Let Me Tell You about a Song
Here’s another song that didn’t get much attention when it came out, but got revived by a cover, with Tom Russell combining it with my next choice on the better of the two tribute albums that came out in 1994. (Note to artists: when your career is still going strong twenty years after two tribute albums are cut, you’ve made it). The song showcases Hag’s ability to mix the autobiographical with the topical.
10. “Tulare Dust” from Someday We’ll Look Back
I don’t just include this one because I live near the setting. (My home is in Tulare County, home of the drought and the night I was writing this, my cell phone sent me a dust storm alarm.) The imagery is perfect. With all due respect to mama and her hungry eyes, this may be the best of his dust bowl Okie tunes.
9. “Sometimes I Dream” from Blue Jungle
I think Haggard agrees with me on this one as he re-recorded the song on his recent album Working in Tennessee. I like the original better, but not by much. The song is wistful and well, beautiful. Just listen.
8. “Kern River” from Kern River
Yes, I know. Another one that was actually a hit. But this song was a hit because fans demanded it. Radio didn’t want to play it. The record label didn’t like it. Heck, Hag almost picked a fistfight with the label head over the song. But there’s good reason. If Sometimes I Dream is wistful, this one tops it with great imagery as well.
7. “Pancho and Lefty” from Pancho and Lefty
Of course, Willie takes the lead on the song, but Hag’s contribution is underrated. Despite the brevity of his part, he brings his character fully to life. For that reason, no single-singer version of the song comes close.
6. “Bareback” from If I Could Only Fly
It could be a stretch having this song this high on the list, but hey, it’s my list. I include it partly to bring more attention to how great this album was (more below) but also because Hag stretches himself a bit in this one. Given how prolific he has been, Hag has rarely talked about sex other than obliquely and his humor has always been of the subtle type. This one is more direct, at least as long as you know what he’s talking about.
5. “What Have You Got Planned Tonight Diana?” from Roots of My Raising
This is storytelling at its absolute best, and again Merle is stretching, with the song set in the wilds of Alaska. I dare you to listen with a dry eye.
4. “Huntsville” from Someday We’ll Look Back
If you’ve been paying attention, you might have noticed that this is the third song I’ve mentioned from the same album and none are the title track. I guess that speaks well of the album. Huntsville brings to mind a word you’d rarely associate with Haggard: funky. The guitar work is brilliant and the lyrics bring the character’s desperation right into your soul. You’ll be ready to break prison right along with him and by the end of the song, you’ll wish it would keep going.
3. “If I Could Only Fly” from If I Could Only Fly
If it were underrated albums I was listing, this one would probably be at the top. Critics did recognize its quality, but Hag was a decade gone from radio airplay, so it still didn’t get his due. I could have chosen half the album’s songs to include here, but the title track sticks out. There are other versions, but none as soulful.
2. “The Day the Rains Came” from The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde
No song of his, and few in the world, pull you into a scene quite like this one. A couple seeks shelter from the rain and the rest may be predictable, yet never obvious. Every word is perfect and the phrasing is superlative.
1. “Roses in the Winter” from Serving 190 Proof
The album was one of his best, generating at least four of his better known songs, but this track went unnoticed at the time. An homage to finding light in the darkness, it will give you hope at the first listen. Yet, other than a few of us devoted fans, no one has ever heard of it. How did that happen?
OK, a real list should be a common number, right? Why not 25? You add the last one in the comments. I’m sure it won’t be easy to add just one. Merle Haggard has amassed such an impressive record of quality and quantity that many of you could create a list as long as mine that I probably couldn’t argue with.