by Julian Spivey
Merle Haggard is very likely the greatest songwriter in the history of country music, which makes formulating a list of his greatest lyrics/verses an incredibly hard task. The “Working Man’s Poet” has had half a century of classic country songs to choose from, but here are the top five …
1. “And I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole/No one could steer me right by Mama tried, Mama tried/Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied/That leaves only me to blame ‘cause Mama tried” – “Mama Tried” (1968)
“Mama Tried,” Merle Haggard’s fifth career No. 1 hit from 1968, wasn’t 100 percent autobiographical, but quite a bit of it was. Haggard did spend his 21st birthday behind bars at San Quentin for burglary and the song was written about the pain he felt he caused his mother by doing hard time. The part that isn’t autobiographical is that he, of course, wasn’t serving a life sentence. “Mama Tried” has become Haggard’s quintessential song and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
2. “The warden led a prisoner down the hallway to his doom/I stood up to say goodbye like all the rest/And I heard him tell the warden just before he reached my cell/’Let my guitar playing friend do my request’” – “Sing Me Back Home” (1967)
“Sing Me Back Home,” Merle Haggard’s third career No. 1 from 1967, was another song inspired by his time behind bars at San Quentin, as so many of his iconic songs during his legendary career have been. While in San Quentin Haggard befriended a fellow inmate nicknamed “Rabbit.” Rabbit tried to escape San Quentin and in the process killed a security guard and was later executed for doing so. This incident inspired Haggard to pen “Sing Me Back Home.”
3. “I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am/But they won’t let my secret go untold/I paid the debt I owed them, but they’re still not satisfied/Now I’m a branded man out in the cold” – “Branded Man” (1967)
“Branded Man,” Merle Haggard’s second career No. 1 from 1967, is yet another partially autobiographical song inspired by Haggard’s prison term at San Quentin. The hit is about an ex-con getting paroled, but always having the stigma of being in jail attached to him when he’s trying to re-acclimate himself to the real world. It’s something all ex-cons, including Haggard, surely struggle with upon their release. Haggard was finally pardoned for his crimes in 1972 by then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
4. “Turn me loose, set me free/Somewhere in the middle of Montana/And gimme all I’ve got comin’ to me/And keep your retirement/And your so-called social security/Big city, turn me loose and set me free” – “Big City” (1982)
Merle Haggard’s 1982 No. 1 “Big City” from his album of the same name is one of country music’s truly great escapism songs. Haggard is tired of the fast-paced life in the big city and needs something a little more simple and quiet out in the country. Few lines in country music have ever sounded as promising and worthwhile as: “turn me loose, set me free/somewhere in the middle of Montana.” Haggard’s bus driver, Dean Holloway, was the inspiration for this one when one day in Los Angeles on the tour bus he said, “I hate this place. I’m tired of this dirty old city.” Haggard took the line and ran with it.
5. “Yeah, men in position are backin’ away/Freedom is stuck in reverse/Let’s get out of Iraq and get back on the track/And let’s rebuild America first” – “America First” (2005)
Merle Haggard has never been one to shy away from what he truly believes in, something all of the great country music outlaws have always had in common. He’s often gotten political in song throughout his career, which is something not too many country singers have actually ever done. Haggard took a side that surprised quite a few on his 2005 album Chicago Wind with the songs “Where’s All the Freedom?” and “America First,” which criticized the President George W. Bush White House and its bogus war in Iraq while a lot of things in America needed fixing. The above lyric is the most biting one from “America First” and showed that Haggard hadn’t lost his touch as a songwriter with something important to say.