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Merle Haggard: 5 Songs to Remember Him By

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Merle Haggard gave us dozens of hits. Here are 5 of the country legend’s greatest.

Merle Haggard died on April 6, 2016 – his 79th birthday – but his songs live on. He serenaded listeners for decades, creating what came to be known as “outlaw country” as he moved from the lush “Nashville Sound” of mainstream country to a “Bakersfield Sound” full of twangy guitars and fiddles. He recorded 38 No. 1 hits and landed numerous accolades, from multiple Grammy awards to a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Here are five songs to remember him by.

“Mama Tried”

“Mama Tried” reflects some of Merle Haggard’s own experiences growing up. When he was 9, his father died and his mother Flossie was left to raise him. He grew more rebellious; lyrics like “Dear old Daddy, rest his soul... left my mom a heavy load” echo those troubled years. Clearly, though, his mother’s efforts weren’t wasted, as her son grew up to be one of the most loved voices in country music.  

“Big City”

Haggard co-wrote “Big City” with his lifelong friend and tour bus driver Dean Holloway. In fact, the song was inspired by something Holloway said to him while they were stopped in Los Angeles for a performance. “Dean was sitting there minding the bus. When I asked how he was doing, Dean said, ‘I hate this place. I’m tired of this dirty old city,’” Haggard said in an interview. “‘This dirty old city’” sort of caught me... The feeling resonated because it was a time in America when things were breaking down, especially in cities.”

“Branded Man”

Released in July 1967, “Branded Man” is one of many instances when Haggard opened up to audiences about his troubled past. As a young man he spent time in multiple jails, including San Quentin prison. Notably, it was at San Quentin that Johnny Cash played his first-ever prison concert to an audience that Haggard was part of. That performance inspired the young inmate to pursue music. “When he walked away, everyone in that place had become a Johnny Cash fan,” he said of the prison concert.

“Sing Me Back Home” (performed with Willie Nelson)

Like “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home” touches on the theme of prison. Yet the song’s lyrics are relatable to anyone who’s made mistakes and wishes to go back in time: 

“Sing me back home, the song my mama sang
Make my old memories come alive
Take me away and turn back the years
Sing Me Back Home before I die.” 

“That’s the Way Love Goes”

Haggard recorded his version of Lefty Frizzell and Sanger D. Shafer’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” in 1983 while in the midst of divorcing country singer Leona Williams, the third of his five wives. Bittersweet yet hopeful, Haggard sings from the heart about a man who never found his four-leafed clover, but found someone to chase rainbows with him.

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