Merle Haggard, a true country music original and one of the genre’s greatest singer/songwriters, passed away today at the age of 79 — on his birthday. The news came following Haggard’s hospitalization for double pneumonia in December, which then led to the cancellation of a string of tour dates in February.
Throughout his career, Haggard stayed amazingly active on the road, and as a recording artist. Along with artists like George Jones and Loretta Lynn, Haggard helped defined the sleek pop sound of Nashville-based country music in the 1970s. However, his stories of crime and incarceration — based on personal experience in the late ‘50s — made him feel unique in that world: a hard-bitten storyteller along the lines of Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings. Haggard was “outlaw country” before the term existed.
He also borrowed heavily from the “western swing” tradition of jazz-influenced, fiddle-heavy C&W. One of Haggard’s best LPs was an album dedicated to the music of one of the genre’s pioneers, Texas Playboys bandleader Bob Wills: 1970’s A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World (or, My Salute to Bob Wills).
Haggard was also, like many country stars of his generation, an avid collaborator, recording collaborative albums with friends like Jones and Willie Nelson; Nelson and Haggard’s cover of Townes van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” became a #1 country hit in the early ‘80s.
Of course, this was just one of a full 38 #1 hits Haggard scored, out of a total of 71 in the Top 10. The ratio of quality to quantity in Haggard’s discography is truly stunning, and solidifies his place as the next great country songwriter to emerge after Johnny Cash and Hank Williams.
Here is a playlist of some songs — hits and back catalogue tracks alike — which demonstrate his wit, sensitivity, and versatility.
“Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”
The first of Merle’s definitive drinking songs.
“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”
The second, complete with great jam session.
“I Am a Lonesome Fugitive”
His first #1, which, though he didn’t write it, seemed to speak closely to his experiences as young man.
“What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)”
Haggard was as adept with sensitive ballads as jaded honky-tonk anthems.
Perhaps his most famous song — the karaoke classic.
“Okie from Muskogee”
His plainspoken tribute to his Oklahoma upbringing.
“The Roots of My Raising�����
A nostalgic tour of his family home, and his 23rd #1 (and it was only the mid-‘70s).
“The Sidewalks of Chicago”
A fantastic non-original on one of his greatest original-song-dominated albums: 1971’s Hag.
Merle at the dawn of the ‘80s. For anyone who’s ever grown to hate their city.
“If We Make It Through December”
It’s the coldest time of winter/And I shiver when I see the falling snow