'Mama Tried,' 'Okie from Muskogee,' 'Sing Me Back Home,' and more classic tunes

Credit: Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

Country music’s outlaw legend Merle Haggard died on his 79th birthday. Haggard began playing guitar shortly after his final stint in jail in 1960 and released his first single in 1963. And last year, he dropped his fourth collaborative album with Willie Nelson, which was met with critical acclaim. With 65 albums and 38 No.1 country songs, he’s one of the genre’s most prolific talents and one of the great contributors to the fabric of American music, so it’s impossible to call any one of his songs “the best.” Instead, EW has rounded up 10 of his most essential tunes, to get you started on your own deep dive.

“Sing Me A Sad Song,” 1963

While his first single, released in 1963, sold just 200 copies, Haggard’s second run at the charts performed much better, eventually bowing at No.19. It’s hardly the singer’s best release, but it marked the moment the world met Merle Haggard and his simple, straightforward lyrics — and isn’t that something to remember.

“Sing Me Back Home,” 1967

Musically, Haggard is most famous as a paragon of Western swing and honky tonk but his forays into gospel are stirring—never more so than on this tender dirge for a former cellmate. He sings from the perspective of Jimmy “Rabbit” Hendricks, who died when the two’s plot to escape prison went wrong. (Hendricks killed a state trooper during his breakout and was later put to death.) Here, Rabbit asks his “guitar-playing friend” to sing him a favorite gospel tune before his execution. Soaked in regret, it marries country with the blues for a song that falls nowhere short of holy.

“Mama Tried,” 1968

Released in 1968 off his album of the same name, “Mama Tried” is a plainspoken song about the pain and suffering Haggard caused his mother during his repeat-incarcerations at a young age, “Tried” was an early look at what would become some of Haggard’s longest-running motifs: prison and the men inhabiting its cells. In 1999 the song was honored with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award, and this year the National Registry of Recording selected the song for preservation.

“Okie from Muskogee,” 1969

The Bakersfield native became a reluctant political figure, and that all began with his most overt statement, “Okie from Muskogee.” Written as he had become increasingly dismayed watching people protest the Vietnam War and released three weeks after Woodstock, the song taunts the hippie set with lyrics like, “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD/ We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin’ right and bein’ free” — or does it? That may seem like a straightforward assault against those who chose to go against the patriotic grain, but it wasn’t long before people like Bob Dylan promoted seeing it another way, calling it a great satire. Haggard’s original intent will likely remain cloudy.

“If We Make It Through December,” 1973

On Haggard’s defining Christmastime hit — a staple of format radio stations still — the legend laments the loneliness of the holiday season. “It’s the coldest time of winter,” he sings, shivering at more than just the temperature. Hard times were a favored topic of Haggard’s, and his ability to touch on the cautious optimism that runs throughout them is without compare. Our narrator here might not be able to buy enough presents this year, but his resolve that next will be different is as inspiring as it is heartbreaking.

“Pancho and Lefty,” with Willie Nelson, 1983

Haggard lived hard — and had fun doing it for a while. After he separated from his third wife, he holed up in a houseboat on Lake Shasta for round-the-clock parties and callous affairs. It was there and then that he and Willie Nelson cut this cover of Townes Van Zandt’s 1972 classic song for an album of the same name. While he has just two verses — recorded just before sunrise after a night of debauchery — they exist is a universe with little parallel. His delivery is without flourish and so unsentimental it’s sentimental, all over again.

“Kern River,” 1985

It’s hard to imagine that you’d ever want to fall headfirst into a song about someone’s girlfriend drowning in a river, but therein lies the magic of Merle Haggard. On the only single from his album of the same name, Haggard swears off Kern River because it was “there I first met her, and there that I lost my best friend.” With just a few notes, and those very somber lines, Haggard builds an entire world for listeners to live in, beautifully and tragically intact.

“No Time To Cry,” 1996

Given how many Haggard-originals exist, it might seem frivolous to pick a cover out of the barrel — but Haggard was as strong an interpreter as a writer and this take on Iris DeMent tune is a fine vehicle to showcase it. About losing a parent and facing your own age, he delivers the song with such palpable remorse, as well as characteristic reserve, for an effect that’s undoubtedly profound.

“(Think About A) Lullaby,” 2000

In 1993 Haggard declared bankruptcy and, professionally, the rest of the decade seemed to follow suit as the singer released the three lowest-charting albums of his career. (1996, in fact, did not chart at all.) His return to form came in, well, the form of “Lullaby,” which he penned with his fifth wife, Theresa, whom he’d married in 1993. Off If I Could Only Fly and unapologetically perpendicular to the glossy pop production on country radio that surrounded it, Haggard showed listeners than exploration of boredom by a man in his sixties can be as compelling as his early tales of getting locked up and trying to bust out.

“Missing Ol’ Johnny Cash,” with Willie Nelson, 2015

Haggard and his longtime friend released their fourth collaborative collection just last year. One of EW’s best Country Records of 2015, the set reflects their shared, fabled history and, in doing so, pays homage to the genre they have shaped over the course of their careers — never more poignantly than when they two remember their other longtime friend, Johnny Cash, who died in 2003. Cash had an enormous hand in Haggard’s career, from inspiring Haggard to pick up a guitar to hosting him on his variety show once his career took off. As this song switches between witty and wistful, it highlights Haggard’s true worth as a songwriter: his ability to affect seemingly contradictory emotions, all at once.