Merle Haggard had a rough start in this world. First of all, he was born during the final years of the Great Depression, and soon after, his father died when Haggard was around nine years old. As a teenager, Haggard had a tendency to commit petty crimes and land himself in juvenile detention. By most standards, he could have been considered a “troubled kid” or a “wayward youth,” if you will.
Videos by American Songwriter
And he kept trekking down that path into his early adulthood. In 1957, Haggard was sent to San Quentin Prison after attempting to rob a roadhouse in his hometown of Bakersfield, California. In a famous autobiographical moment, Haggard wrote, I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole, in his 1968 song “Mama Tried.”
All of that to say, Haggard not only sounded like a country outlaw, but he embodied the phrase. Finally though, after hearing a Johnny Cash performance, Haggard decided to channel his experiences into song. Haggard was so good at using his life as a touchstone for music that Kris Kristofferson would wind up calling Haggard “the most successfully rehabilitated prisoner in American history.”
So, in an attempt to acquaint ourselves further with a fraction of this country singer’s story, let’s take a look at some of Haggard’s best songs from the ’80s.
1. “Pancho and Lefty” (1983)
Originally written by another country legend, Townes Van Zandt, “Pancho and Lefty” was covered by Haggard and Willie Nelson for their 1983 duet album of the same name. The Haggard/Nelson rendition of the ballad became a No. 1 hit, and it continues to carry on the legacy of the country outlaw.
2. “Big City” (1981)
If you’re looking for some camaraderie in your disdain for city life, look no farther than “Big City.” I’m tired of this dirty old city, Haggard sings, And tired of too much work/ And never enough play/ And I’m tired of these dirty old sidewalks/ Think I’ll walk off my steady job today/ Turn me loose, set me free.
3. “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (1980)
Written by Haggard for his 1980 album, Back to the Barrooms, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is a no-frills lyrical wonder with a noteworthy saxophone solo played by Don Markham of the band The Strangers. You don’t care about what I think/ I think I’ll just stay here and drink, Haggard sings.
4. “That’s the Way Love Goes” (1983)
Now turning to one of Haggard’s softer songs, “That’s the Way Love Goes” opens with the country artist singing of horseshoes, four-leaf clovers, rainbows, and love. The song itself was written by Lefty Frizzell and Sanger D. Shafer, the former greatly inspired Haggard’s own craft.
5. “Yesterday’s Wine” (1982)
Willie Nelson wrote “Yesterday’s Wine” for his album of the same name, but it wasn’t until Haggard covered the song with George Jones that the song popped off on the charts. Haggard and Jones’ version of the song hit the No. 1 position on the Hot Country Songs chart and inspired a collaborative album between the two. Further, the song lyrically makes sense for a duet because the song is about two old friends running into each other at a bar and catching up on the years they missed.
6. “A Place to Fall Apart” (1984)
Haggard sings “A Place to Fall Apart” with fellow country singer/songwriter Janie Fricke and is backed by The Strangers. It’s a tugging-on-the-heartstrings type of breakup song as Haggard wonders where things went wrong. Looking for a place to fall apart, Haggard sings. Trying to find a place that I can leave my heart.
7. “Kern River” (1985)
Forewarning: “Kern River” is a tremendously despairing song that talks about suicide. It is, however, beautiful in its sorrow. The narrator of the song (sung by Haggard, of course) reveals that his girlfriend drowned in a California river called the Kern River. I’ll never swim Kern River again/ It was there that I met her it was there I lost my best friend, Haggard sings.
8. “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)” (1981)
Like any good country outlaw, Haggard looks fondly on “the good ole days” before things were complicated by the ever-changing winds of time.
I wish a buck was still silver
And it was back when country was strong
Back before Elvis and before Viet Nam war came along
Before the Beatles and “Yesterday”
When a man could still work and still would
Is the best of the free life behind us now?
Photo by Beth Gwinn/Getty Images