Some people know me as a big fan of the Hag, because if you ask me who my favorite country singer is, that’s what I’ll answer on most days (admittedly, depending on the weather, the answer could just as easily come out Ernest Tubb or Emmylou Harris). But Merle Haggard was more than just a country singer who could break your heart by dropping to an unexpected low note. He was a songwriter whose chart-topping hits often crossed over to the pop charts. He was a gifted poet trapped in a salty stout frame. He was bright and gritty and a huge fan base wanted to watch him right until he burned out as if he was a literal star hurtling through the country cosmos.
He died on his birthday, everyone lamented when news broke that he passed at 79 on April 6, 2016. It would’ve been a great loss on any calendar day, so I'd say it’s fitting that the king of the reluctant nod – in songs he penned and performed the dirt out of like “Mama Tried,” “If We Make It Through December” or “Workin’ Man Blues,” just to name a few – should expend his final breath on the day he took his first one. Life’s got a real funny way of causing us to tilt our heads, and not just in Merle Haggard songs.
There are a million great retrospectives on Merle’s career out there in the internet ether, if you’re looking for an in-depth binge on his pioneering style. I’m feeling the sting more than the sweet right now, even though I sat and went through my Merle records last night with a bottle in my hand like the stereotype he painted that I guess I still want to be.
Instead of joining that worthy chorus in recounting Merle’s story (which genuinely hits the notes of a folk myth just as his genuine tone and sincere subject matter hit the right notes for a broad range of listeners), I thought it would suit me more in a time like this to turn to Merle’s drinking songs for comfort. Maybe it’ll help you, too? The Hag sang plenty of songs about taking punches, but his loss is still a gut check. Let’s raise a glass and pour one out for every time Merle’s songs made us want to do the same.
Merle performed and toured right up until his body gave him reason to quit, powering through nearly 8 decades with the unstoppable pop force of the trains you hear about in country songs so much. To quote “Ramblin’ Fever,” the road was probably the only way Merle knew to live, “I want to die along the highway and rot away like some old high-line pole.”
Cheers to Merle whose artistry is uncommon. Pull up a stool if you will and enjoy my top 20 Merle drinking songs, ranked:
1. “The Bottle Let Me Down”
Tonight the bottle let me down/
And let your memory come around/
The one true friend I thought I'd found/
Tonight the bottle let me down.
2. “Swinging Doors”
I've got everything I need to drive me crazy/
I've got everything it takes to lose my mind/
And in here the atmosphere's just right for heartaches/
And thanks to you I'm always here till closing time.
3. “The Emptiest Arms in the World”
I only call when I've had that one too many/
And my lonely room goes spinning in a whirl/
And tonight I couldn't even find my pillow/
I've got the emptiest arms in the world.
4. “Workin’ Man Blues”
I ain't never been on welfare, that's one place I won't be/
Cause I'll be working long as my two hands are fit to use/
I drink a little beer in a tavern/
Sing a little bit of these working man blues.
5. “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”
Hurtin' me now, don't mean a thing/
Since lovin' you, don't feel no pain/
My mind ain't nothin' but a total blank/
I think I'll just stay here and drink.
6. “Reasons to Quit”
The smoke and booze don't do me like before/
And I'm hardly ever sober/
And my old friends don't come around much anymore.
7. “Back to the Barrooms”
With the loud music roaring the bartender pouring/
And my shaky legs trying to stand/
It's over and over I've tried to stay sober/
But look what a failure I've been/
'Cause now it's back to the barrooms again.
8. “Drink Up and Be Somebody”
I gotta make you think I'm happy everywhere I go/
I gotta keep my hurt inside me, I can't let it show/
I gotta drink up and be somebody, I’ll have another round/
I can't let my troubles find me, I gotta keep your mem'ry down.
9. “What Am I Gonna Do”
I've got whiskey I can drink that'll help me not to think about you leaving/
Yes I can smoke and I can drink probably be all right till morning/
But what am I gonna do with the rest of my life?
10. “C.C. Waterback”
C.C. Waterback, one tequila sunrise/
One's for my achin' head, the other's for my bloodshot eyes/
Last night we let it all hang out, I guess that's how our heads got sore/
C.C. Waterback, I can't stand the pain no more.
11. “I Threw Away the Rose”
I stood by and watched the bottle take control of me/
The turn I made was not the one I'd planned/
And I watched my social standings slip away from me/
While I watched the bottle slowly take command.
12. “I Don’t Want to Sober Up Tonight”
I want to keep my mind a little hazy/
I don't care if all my friends think I'm crazy/
The way I treat myself, I might be a little crazy/
But that's all right, I don't want to sober up tonight.
13. “I Had a Beautiful Time”
We poured out the feelings and then we poured the wine.
14. “It’s Been a Great Afternoon”
Last night we had a hell-raisin' time/
Nippin' on tequila and suckin' on limes/
Sunrise chased the good time away/
And good morning would have been the wrong thing to say.
15. “Honky Tonk Night Time Man”
I'm a honky tonk night time man/
I can't stand no light/
I get my rest in the daytime/
I do my running 'round, 'round at night, all right.
16. “I Wonder Where I’ll Find You at Tonight”
I wonder if I'll find you in some honky tonkin' bar/
I wonder if I'll find the hidden place you parked the car.
Well, life began to twist its way around him/
And I wondered how he carried such a load/
He came back again to try his luck in music/
And lost his wife and family on the road.
After that he seemed to bog down even deeper/
And I saw what booze and pills could really do/
And I wondered if I'd ever see him sober/
But I forgot about a Friend that Leonard knew.
18. “Rainbow Stew”
When a President goes through the White House door/
Does what he says he'll do/
We'll all be drinkin' that free bubble-ubb/
And eatin' that rainbow stew.
19. “Are the Good Times Really Over?”
I wish Coke was still Cola/
And a joint was a bad place to be/
It was back before Nixon lied to us all on TV.
20. “I Always Get Lucky With You”
I've been turned on and turned down/
When the bars close at two/
But I always get lucky with you.
There’s a warm fuzzy feeling that comes with letting go. It’s easy to miss, though. The sting of relinquishing control over an idea, a person or, worse, your own life is often the focus in moments when life pushes you around until you’re powerless. Merle Haggard’s songs shifted audiences away from the bitter and into the sweet. He was the master troubadour of rolling with the punches.