Country singer Merle Haggard died Wednesday, the day of his 79th birthday. One of the most recognizable voices in popular music has been silenced.
Haggard, with the twang of his Fender Telecaster, helped, along with Buck Owens, create the “Bakersfield Sound,” a style of country music, a mix of electric guitars and pedal steel guitars that was popular in the bars and honky tonks of Bakersfield, Cali., a town about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.
One of the biggest pieces of folklore that surrounded his life was that he was an inmate at San Quentin Prison when a young Johnny Cash played one of the iconic sets of his career. Haggard said many times in his life that the Cash concert was the moment when he decided to give up petty crimes and pursue his love for music.
I was able to see Haggard a couple of times during my life. The first time, he opened for Clint Black at Humphrey Coliseum at MSU. My friend Patti and I went, and Haggard was fantastic.
The last time I saw him was in the summer of 2012, a few months before I got married. I went to the show with Slim Smith, who many of you may remember from his days as a sports writer at the Sun Herald. If you know him, then you know he’s quite a character. He used to tell me that he didn’t particularly care for music much outside of bluegrass, but he wanted to see Haggard.
We saw him with Jamey Johnson at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater.
Haggard has always been one of my favorite country singers. He’s in an elite list that includes Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Ray Price. Country music is some of the music my parents exposed me to at a young age. It remains among my favorites.
With a highly prolific career that spanned decades, Haggard released hundreds of songs during his 79 years. Here are 10 of my favorite Merle Haggard songs:
10. That’s the Way Love Goes - There’s something about early 80s country music that I really love. Written by Lefty Frizzell, Haggard’s 1983 version went to number one on the charts and won him a Grammy.
9. If We Make It Through December - Another number one for Haggard, this was an early 70s AM radio staple. It’s the saddest Christmas song you’re likely to hear. It tells the tale of a family that, through unemployment, can’t afford Christmas gifts and is hoping for better days.
8. Mama Tried - An ode to mama’s love, the song was, allegedly, one of Jerry Garcia’s favorites. It become a crowd favorite at many Grateful Dead shows.
7. The Bottle Let Me Down - A great example of Haggard’s songwriting abilities. If the booze or other substances have ever stopped working for you, then you can probably relate to the level of depression of which Haggard sings.
6. Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink - Because when the booze works, it works. It’s the pains of alcoholism compressed in about 4:30.
5. Yesterday’s Wine - George Jones joins Haggard on the Willie Nelson-penned song. It sound as if they may have had a bit too much of yesterday’s wine and that makes the song almost perfect.
4. Pancho and Lefty - Because Townes Van Zandt, Willie and Merle equals magic. Enough said.
3. Silver Wings - God bless, you, Merle Haggard. May the good Lord hold you close.
2. Big City - In this Bob Wills-inspired number, Haggard shows why he was one of the greatest singers of the 2oth Century. Try to sing along with it and I can almost promise that you will not get all of the vocal nuances.
1. I Threw Away the Rose - Yes, alcoholism takes its toll on the body and the soul. This is some honest songwriting. Lorrie Morgan re-recorded it and change the “I” to “you.” Her husband, Keith Whitley, died from alcoholism. This sure to make you weepy.
Jeff Clark is a staff writer for the Sun Herald.