The Top Ten Merle Haggard Albums

Posted by Joe Goldmark, October 21, 2014 02:50pm | Post a Comment

It’s been said that during his heyday, 1966-1976, Merle Haggard wrote a good song every day.  I’ve only heard that said about one other artist: Stevie Wonder. Indeed, Merle’s albums during this period showcase his talents as a songwriter and performer. When he wasn’t recording his own tunes, his covers of mostly Bakersfield songwriters further displayed his unique ability to get to the heart of a song.

Merle started out playing bass in Wynn Stewart’s band and soon cut some singles for Tally, a small Bakersfield label. After scoring a top 20 country hit with “Sing a Sad Song,” Merle got signed to Capitol and was teamed up with producer Ken Nelson. Ken let Merle use his own band, supplemented with some L.A. studio guys like James Burton, to get his Bakersfield sound.  The key components were the hot but sparse sounds of guitarist Roy Nichols, steelers Ralph Mooney and Norm Hamlet, and the stark harmonies of Merle’s then wife, Bonnie Owens. Merle had more hits when he moved on to MCA, Epic, Curb, ANTI- and others, but the hard-biting brilliance of his early Capitol works defines Bakersfield C&W music.  There were also five excellent, mostly instrumental albums by Merle’s band, The Strangers, that are worth seeking out if you like slinky West Coast country pickin’.

1. Swinging Doors  - Capitol ST/T 2585 (1966)

Honky-tonk music at its finest, with such chestnuts as “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Swinging Doors,” not to mention a tune that Gram Parsons covered, “Somebody Else You’ve Known.” This was Merle’s second album and he really locked in his Bakersfield sound.


2. Someday We’ll Look Back - Capitol ST-835 (1971)

Chockfull of reflective songs that work together well, this is a really cohesive album, almost a country operetta, if you will. Favorites are “Train of Life,” “California Cottonfields,” “Carolyn” and “Someday We’ll Look Back.”



A Portrait of Merle Haggard

3. A Portrait of Merle Haggard - Capitol ST-319 (1969)

Featuring his self-penned standards “Working Man Blues,” “Silver Wings” and other winners like “She Thinks I Still Care,” “Who Do I Know In Dallas,” Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Every Fool Has a Rainbow.”


Merle Haggard, Branded Man

4. Branded Man/I Threw Away the Rose - Capitol ST/T 2789 (1967)

Named after the hits on the album, and including many other winners such as “Somewhere Between,” You Don’t Have Very Far To Go” and “Long Black Limousine.”


Merle Haggard, Pride In What I am

5. Pride In What I Am - Capitol SKAO 168 (1969)

One of my favorites is “Who’ll Buy the Wine,” with the memorable line, “Not long ago you held our baby’s bottle, but the one you’re holding now’s a different kind.” Also includes “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line,” “I Think We’re Living In the Good Old Days,” “California Blues” and the title song, “Pride In What I Am.”


6. A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World - Capitol ST-638 (1970)

In spite of the title, Bob Wills would be the first to tell you that he wasn’t much of a fiddle player, but we know he was a great band leader. This smoking tribute album combines Merle’s band with Wills' alumni. They play some of the more popular Wills standards such as “Right Or Wrong,” “Time Changes Everything,” San Antonio Rose,” “Roly Poly” and “Take Me Back To Tulsa.”


Merle Haggard, Hag

7. Hag - Capitol ST-735 (1971)

This album has a loser theme in the “Mama Tried” vein, with tunes like the incredible “Sidewalks of Chicago” and the heartbreaking “I’ve Got No Reason to Quit.”  


8. I’m a Lonesome Fugitive - Capitol ST/T 2702 (1967) 

Another in Merle’s pantheon of ex-cons and men on the run, the “Fugitive” was probably influenced by the TV show of the same name. Other good tunes are “House of Memories,” “Life in Prison” and “Drink Up & Be Somebody.”


Merle Haggard, Strangers

9. Strangers - Capitol ST/T 2373 (1965)

This is Merle’s first album and a good one. Lynn Anderson’s mom, Liz, wrote the great title song. It was such a success that Merle named his band “The Strangers.” There are many other good tunes such as ”You Don’t Have Very Far To Go,” “Sam Hill,” “If I Had Left It Up To You” and his first hit, “Sing A Sad Song.”


Merle Haggard, Same Train A Different Time

10. Same Train a Different Time - Capitol SWBB 223 (1969)

This is Merle’s tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, aka “America’s Singing Brakeman.” The tunes on this double album are lovingly performed in a semi-acoustic style that does the music proud.



Merle HaggardHonorable Mentions:

Sing Me Back Home – Capitol ST/T 2848 (1968)

Mama Tried – Capitol ST 2972 (1968)

If We Make It Through December – Capitol ST-11276 (1974) 


Head to the Vinyl Beat website to check out extensive LP label guides and wild cover galleries!

Relevant Tags

Merle Haggard (10), Lists (63), Country (20)