Essential Merle Haggard

The albums every Merle Haggard fan should own

Born and raised in Bakersfield, Ca., Merle Haggard came to be a huge part of the iconic Bakersfield sound movement during the 1950s. The country music offshoot had a distinct rock 'n roll flavor and relied heavily on electric instrumentation, a far cry from the squeaky clean, string-laden country music of Nashville that was popular at the time. 

Haggard's life became the basis for many of his iconic songs, including "Mama Tried, "Workin' Man Blues" and "The Bottle Let Me Down." He's probably best known for the song "Okie From Muskogee," even though he is a native Californian. Haggard is also one of the most frequently cited "influences" for country artists today.

There's little doubt that Haggard is an enduring country music legend. The release of Mama Tried in 1968 continued his hot streak and reached number four on Billboard's country albums chart. Since its initial release, Mama Tried has been reissued twice, and the title track won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. This album is a terrific slice of Haggard's earlier work.

1981's Big City was Haggard's debut album on the Epic label, a move that seemed to ignite his creativity: he wrote or cowrote eight of the album's 12 tracks, including the number one tracks "Big City" and "My Favorite Memory." The album revisits Haggard's classic theme of the plight of the working man and noted as one of his most enduring recordings.

Haggard's third studio album contains two of his biggest hits, "The Bottle Let Me Down" and "Swinging Doors." The album was a success, but it didn't come easily. Production was difficult at first, but Haggard hit a creative streak and ended up penning 10 of the album's 12 tracks. Swinging Doors also includes a fantastic cut of Tommy Collins' "High On a Hilltop."

Haggard is known for tackling political issues and similar topics in his work, and 1971's Hag is nothing less than a political statement. It opens with the World War II-era Ernest Tubb song, "Soldier's Last Letter," a track that seemed to take on a new meaning with the United States' continued involvement with the Vietnam War. Other tracks, like "Sidewalks of Chicago" and "Jesus Take Hold" address social issues. Hag is a reflective album and a far cry from his earlier raucous works.

A live album recorded in front of a sold-out crowd during a performance at the Civic Center Hall in Philadelphia, The Fightin' Side of Me was created to cash in on the success of the title cut. In addition to performing his own hits, Haggard shows off his talent for imitation by singing a medley of Buck Owns, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins and Hank Snow songs. Haggard's then-wife, Bonnie Owens, also performs a few numbers.

Roots, Volume 1 marks the second release from the independent label ANTI-. Haggard pulls out the stops to show people what it means to really get back to their roots, delivering an album that epitomizes how country music used to be made. Lefty Frizzell's lead guitarist, Norman Stephens, lends his talents. The tracks feel stripped down and add up to an impressive album that is noted as one of Haggard's finer moments.

Haggard rendition of the Lefty Frizzell song, "That's the Way Love Goes," sets the tone for this album. The song topped the Billboard country chart and won Haggard a Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. "Someday When Things Are Good," a song he cowrote with then-wife Leona Williams, also topped the charts. That's the Way Love Goes is a laid-back blend of ballads; the kind of album you'd want to listen to while winding down after a busy day.

After a string of gospel and roots albums, Haggard returned "like never before" in this 2004 release from his own label, Hag Records. In it, Haggard takes another political turn with "That's the News," a song about the media and the country's involvement in the Middle East. Haggard Like Never Before melds several different styles of music, including jazz, Latin and the blues. He teams up with Willie Nelson on "Reno Blues." This album is a solid collection of well-crafted numbers that feature Haggard at his best.

For this album, Haggard dove into the roots of country music. The 2002 album features cuts of country standards taken straight out of the Ralph S. Peer publishing catalog and were recorded between 1996 and 1998. Roy Horton, who worked with Peer-Southern Music for more than 40 years, helped Haggard select 12 songs by country music legends, including Jimmie Rodgers, Jimmie Davis and Floyd Tillman, among others.

Down Every Road is the greatest Haggard box set. The four discs are arranged in chronological order, starting with his early recordings in the '60s, all the way through his releases in the '90s. With a body of work like this, it's no wonder Haggard has become one of the biggest forces in country music. Down Every Road is, without a doubt, the ultimate collection from one of country music's greatest.