Merle Haggard's 10 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach
Merle Haggard performs during day one of 2015 Stagecoach, California's Country Music Festival, at The Empire Polo Club on April 24, 2015 in Indio, Calif.

As much fun as it is putting these lists together as of late, it does bring up some interesting arguments. Somehow, we have a feeling that there will be plenty of discussion about this attempt to condense the Merle Haggard song catalog into twenty titles.

First of all, you could easily choose ten Haggard songs from the three main eras of his chart career -- Capitol (1965-77), MCA (1977-1981), and Epic (1981-1990). That’s an understatement. He was that dominant of a creative force. Secondly, a few of his songs were never chart hits for the singer -- "Silver Wings" and "Today I Started Loving You Again," among them. You could throw album cuts ("Shelly’s Winter Love") or duets into the mix, and it would be downright impossible. So, here are 20 of the most unforgettable Merle Haggard songs that were chart entries for the singer. (That should cover our bases, right?)

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20. Merle Haggard - "Big City"

A decade-plus out from "Okie" in 1981, this chart-topper had lyrical content that was in line with some of his best work -- a song about the plight of the working man. Haggard’s tribute to slower pace in life made for one of his biggest hits of his run on Epic Records, thanks in part to some tasty fiddle licks from veteran instrumentalist (and one time Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys member) Tiny Moore. 

19. Merle Haggard - "Someday When Things Are Good" 

Haggard teamed up with then-wife Leona Williams to compose this gripping ballad about a relationship that was dead in the water. In true show business style, by the time this topped the chart in June of 1984, the couple had already been divorced for close to a year. 

18. Merle Haggard - "Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)" 

 In so many of his songs, Haggard expressed a desire to return to a simpler time when things weren’t as complicated. The lyrics of this 1982 single had many Country fans doing just that.

17. Merle Haggard - "It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)"

When it comes to Merle Haggard songs, most of those that were chart hits for the singer came from his own pen. However, in 1972, the singer turned to veteran tunesmith Hank Cochran and legendary instrumentalist Grady Martin for a song that had classic written all over it. The song definitely sounded like something that could have been done a decade before, earning him a lucky thirteenth number one on the Billboard charts.

16. Merle Haggard - "Hungry Eyes"

A tribute to Haggard’s selfless mother, who raised him alone following the death of his father, the song wasn’t one hundred percent non-fiction. Haggard’s family never lived in a labor camp, but the song struck a chord with fans across all demographics, and became one of the best-loved ballads in Country Music history.

15. Merle Haggard - "You Take Me For Granted" 

As mentioned in Song #19, the 1978-1983 union of Haggard and Leona Williams could be a tumultuous one at times. And, maybe Williams was trying to tell her husband something with the direct lyrics of this one. Whether he took her advice can be debated, but he did take a number one hit with this one.

14. Merle Haggard - "I Can’t Be Myself" 

When discussing timeless Merle Haggard songs, this one doesn’t get as much attention as others in his catalog, but the vocal performance on this 1970 single stands as one of his best. About a man who feels restrained by his new relationship, this song definitely made an impact, having been covered by Vince Gill & Paul Franklin, as well as by LeAnn Rimes.

13. Merle Haggard - "The Bottle Let Me Down"

A 1966 classic that shows the path that Merle Haggard was on in the early stages of his career was going to be an impressive one. His 1965-77 run on Capitol Records might be the greatest artist / label partnership in Country Music history. Try to find a weak link, we dare you. To be sure, it’s definitely not this one, which became one of the format’s greatest drinking songs.

12. Merle Haggard - "It's All In The Movies" 

One of the more underrated gems in Merle Haggard's song catalog was this beautifully exquisite performance, a hit that topped the chart over Thanksgiving of 1975. A very understated performance, one aspect that made this song stand out was the great sax work by Strangers member Don Markham.

11. Merle Haggard - "Always Wanting You" 

Somewhere in the mid 1970s, Haggard did some touring with Dolly Parton, who wrote his chart-topper "Kentucky Gambler." Like many men, the singer became infatuated with the singer. But, Haggard went a step further, penning a song confessing his love. Merle, we know the feeling. We love Dolly, too!

10. Merle Haggard - "If We Make It Through December"

The lead single from his 1973 holiday album Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present, this tender number about a man who wasn’t able to provide a bountiful Christmas for his family touched a nerve with millions of fans who ached along with every line. Haggard said in interviews that he didn’t consider it a true song of the season, but the song still registers some impressive airplay each December.

9. Merle Haggard - "My Favorite Memory" 

Haggard’s switch to Epic in 1981 proved to be a huge decision for his career, as his catalog there proved to include some classic recordings. This nostalgic take on a romantic relationship was one of his biggest love song recordings, and even turned up in a 2013 episode of Dallas, being played at the funeral of the iconic TV character J.R. Ewing. Of course, he had his share of favorite memories!

8. Merle Haggard - "Kern River" 

Though not the singer’s biggest hit, there’s no doubting the emotional depth of this one. Written about the drowning death of his lover, Haggard gave a chilling performance of this one -- making it one of the better compositions of his latter chart years.

7. Merle Haggard - "Okie From Muskogee" 

Was it a salute to the counter-culture era of the late 1960s, a biting piece of social commentary -- or was it a spoof? Well, only Merle Haggard knew the answer for sure. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. The song captivated American audiences, and became his ultimate calling card. The backing musicians on this record were also worth noting -- including James Burton, Jerry Reed, and Ron Tutt.

6. Merle Haggard - "The Fightin' Side Of Me" 

Haggard left nothing to the imagination on how he felt about America in this 1970 classic that served as the follow-up to 'Okie.' This became yet another number one in 1970, and featured longtime Haggard friend (and Bakersfield pioneer) Tommy Collins as one of the session musicians.

5. Merle Haggard - "Workin' Man Blues" 

It should come as no surprise that many of the songs on this list are from the early years of his career, as the singer hit the Country Music scene in the late 1960s with perhaps the biggest artistic bang of all time. Not only were these songs "hits," but they wound up influencing a generation. Maybe none more so than this 1969 tribute to the working class that is going to be played somewhere on Broadway in downtown Nashville tonight, classic guitar riffs and all!

4. Merle Haggard - "Misery and Gin" 

One of the final hits of Haggard’s brief stint at MCA, no song in his catalog evokes sadness and loneliness as much as this potent number. A rarity in the case that he didn’t write it, but he made this song all his own.

3. Merle Haggard - "Mama Tried" 

A Grammy Hall of Fame inductee, this powerful 1968 hit talks about the guilt that the singer felt for the pain that he caused his mother due to his incarceration at San Quentin. When you hear a purist talk about music not being "real" anymore -- it’s a Merle Haggard song like this that they point to. We’d like to think a song like this could still find an audience today, as it has as much passion and depth as anything Haggard ever recorded.

2. Merle Haggard - "I'm A Lonesome Fugitive"

Again, Haggard didn’t write it. Liz and Casey Anderson penned this song about the stigma a man feels due to being behind bars. But, it’s a lyric that he undoubtedly knew first-hand, and he sold each line with the conviction of a man who had been there. If you look up the term "Merle Haggard songs" in the dictionary, this might be the best example of that subject. 

1. Merle Haggard - "Sing Me Back Home"

Maybe Merle Haggard’s finest moment. Inspired by his friendship with a fellow inmate at San Quentin who would be executed, it’s downright impossible to listen to this song and not be emotionally moved by the stark lyrics of this one -- and thankful for your freedom.