The country music world lost an absolute icon when Merle Haggard passed away on April 6, 2016, his 79th birthday. Since the early 1960s, Haggard had made a name for himself in country music, as a proponent of "outlaw country" and a supporter of the "Bakersfield sound." He released more than 100 charting country singles, earned 38 No. 1 hits and released close to 70 albums -- an immense, and legendary, catalog, to say the least.
Haggard had more than 600 songs under his belt when he died, and he wrote 250 or so of those himself. The following are The Boot's picks for his 10 best.
"(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers"From: 'Strangers' (1965)
Haggard's first Top 10 single is a good place to start this list. Although he'd released two singles previously -- "Sing a Sad Song" and "Sam Hill" -- "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" began to put Merle on the map.
"The Fugitive" / "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive"From: 'I'm a Lonesome Fugitive' (1967)
"The Fugitive" (aka "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive") became Haggard's very first No. 1 song following its release in December of 1966. Written by Liz and Casey Anderson, the tune connected with Haggard because of his past prison stints -- though its writers didn't know of his history when they played it for him.
"I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink"From: 'Back to the Barrooms' (1980)
A No. 1 song for Haggard following its October 1980 release, "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" was one of the songs that helped along a career resurgence for "the Hag" in the '80s. It's also one of the last songs he performed at the Grand Ole Opry.
"If We Make It Through December"From: 'Merle Haggard's Christmas Present' / 1974's 'If We Make It Through December' (1973)
"If We Make It Through December" first appeared on Haggard's 1973 Christmas album, but it's not exactly a happy holiday tune. "If we make it through December / Everything's gonna be alright, I know," sings the song's narrator, a man who was laid off from his job just before the holidays. Still, the track's realism struck a chord with fans, and earned Haggard another No. 1; it also found its way onto his 1974 album, as its title track.
"Workin' Man Blues"From: 'A Portrait of Merle Haggard' (1969)
"Workin' Man Blues" is Haggard's tribute to -- you guessed it -- the blue-collar working man; it's also a superb example of the "Bakersfield sound" that he helped popularize. The song was released as a single in the summer of 1969 and hit No. 1, but its message has endured with country music fans -- and will continue to do so.
"Yesterday's Wine"From: 'Yesterday's Wine' (1982)
Two legends are better than one, we always say -- and when the song is written by a third legend (Willie Nelson)? Well, that's even better! The title track of Haggard and George Jones' 1982 album, "Yesterday's Wine" hit No. 1 and stayed on the charts for 10 weeks. The tune tells the story of two old friends unexpectedly running into each other at a bar after many years -- which doesn't seem too far fetched at all.
"Pancho & Lefty"From: 'Pancho & Lefty' (1983)
Released in January of 1983, Pancho & Lefty was the first of numerous collaborations between Haggard and Nelson. It's title track, a cover of a Townes Van Zandt song, hit No. 1, and the album as a whole helped cement Haggard and Nelson's places in country music history and pave the way for their future projects together.
"Mama Tried"From: 'Mama Tried' (1968)
Heavily influenced by, though not entirely an accurate depiction of, Haggard's own time in prison -- and the toll it took on his mother -- "Mama Tried" became the now-icon's biggest hit to date following its release in July of 1968. The first single from and title track of the album he released that October, "Mama Tried" spent three weeks at No. 1. It won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999 and has been preserved in the National Recording Registry.
"The Fightin' Side of Me"From: 'The Fightin' Side of Me' (1970)
One of Haggard's most political (and well known) songs, "The Fightin' Side of Me" was written in response to the military action in Vietnam. Released in December of 1969, as the first single from and title track of his July 1970 album, this song sends a clear message: Don't mess with "the Hag" (or America). "The Fightin' Side of Me" hit No. 1 in March of 1970 and stayed there for three weeks.
"Okie From Muskogee"From: 'Okie From Muskogee' (1969)
You had to know this one was coming, didn't you? "Okie From Muskogee" is one of Haggard's signature songs; even if you don't know country music, when someone says "Merle Haggard," you think "Okie From Muskogee."
Haggard released "Okie From Muskogee" in September of 1969, as the first single from and title track of his album that came out that December. Named the CMA's Song of the Year in 1970, "Okie From Muskogee" hit No. 1 on the Billboard country charts in mid-November of 1969, and stayed there for four weeks.
"During Vietnam, there were all kinds of protests. Here were these [servicemen] going over there and dying for a cause ... And here are these young kids, that were free, b---hing about it. There’s something wrong with that and with [disparaging] those poor guys," Haggard told The Boot. "These soldiers were giving up their freedom and lives to make sure others could stay free. I wrote the song to support those soldiers."
No other song could top this list.