I can't print what I said Wednesday when I got the call about Merle Haggard's passing. I'll just tell you that it was an off-color exclamation, fueled by both denial and gut-level sadness.
Haggard, who died on his 79th birthday after a months-long battle with pneumonia, possessed one of those voices that's bigger than a single artist or genre. He also wrote with the clarity and power of a literary giant.
He's someone I heard in the back seat on the way to grandma's every weekend growing up, someone whose songs my own mom and dad would sing around the house, someone whose very presence in country music gave me hope that its best qualities would never die.
I still believe they won't, but man, I'm beyond crushed that the man himself isn't with us anymore. I look back to November, when I laughed with many others at his on-stage jokes and banter at Gas Monkey Live. He did what he loved until the end.
That in mind, here are the ten Haggard songs that reduced me to a blubbering mess on Wednesday. If you weren't familiar with Merle's catalog before, let these be your gateway:
"The Bottle Let Me Down" (1966): "I'm hurtin' in an old, familiar way," the Hag sang on one of his first big country hits. And boy, did everyone believe him. With an extended note or the ultra-naturalistic delivery of a lyric, he could truly make a song cry.
"Sing Me Back Home" (1967): On the subject of sad Hag songs, we simply must mention this one, about a man on death row making a last request to a musically inclined fellow prisoner. The song became so associated with Hag's genre that the core exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is named after it.
"Mama Tried" (1968): This is another classic prison-related story song from Haggard, inspired by the shame he'd felt during his incarceration following a burglary conviction in his younger days. The heartbreak of disappointing a parent reaches everyone who listens, whether they have a rough past or not. And the sound of this tune -- from the electric guitar intro to the honky-tonk beat -- was evidence of an exciting new era in country.
"Workin' Man Blues" (1969) :The ability to relate and empathize with the blue-collar life was Haggard's most powerful selling point as an writer. Hearing the opening strains could make anyone want to go and "drink a little beer in a tavern." And it's another Hag tune whose arrangement sounds fresh and relevant to this day. Its B-side was "Silver Wings." Talk about all-killer, no filler.
"Okie from Muskogee" (1969): Hag and his co-writer, Roy Burris, penned the song from a decidedly anti-hippie point of view. Whether their approach was meant as humorous commentary or not, it was a hit with both the traditionalists it represented and the hippies it derided. Anything delivered with that much conviction and talent is difficult not to embrace.
"The Fightin' Side of Me" (1969): Like "Okie" this song was a statement that could either be taken as an earnest message or as a character study. Regardless of the intention, it was so well constructed that it stuck as one of Haggard's signature tunes. He closed with it at Gas Monkey Live back in November.
"If We Make it Through December" (1973) Most Christmas-themed songs are focused on joy and celebration, but Haggard saw the holiday season as many working families saw it -- a hardscrabble time that creates incredible stress for those in the struggle. But there are also warm hopes and lump-in-throat daydreams in those lyrics. And killer Merle guitar-pickin'.
"I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" (1980) Oh, how we love a good country kiss-off, and this is one of the best. The honky-tonk piano here is balanced out by the '80s-embracing saxophone solo. From the first line ("Could be holding you tonight") on, it's easy to appreciate and try to mimic the Hag's colorful, slightly-frog-throated vocal. That's one of music's greatest sounds.
"Pancho and Lefty" (1983) Merle's long-standing collaborative relationship with buddy Willie Nelson is best represented by their classic duet take on this Townes Van Zandt story song. Listening to this one on Wednesday hit me the hardest, for whatever reason. "And so the story ends, we're told."
"That's the Way Love Goes" (1983) It was written by Lefty Frizzell, but Merle sang this one with such beautiful melancholy that it became forever entangled with his legacy. A heavy sigh of a vocal. "That's the music God made."