Review #284: Down Every Road 1962–1994, Merle Haggard

Karla Clifton
10 min readJun 4, 2022

#284: Down Every Road 1962–1994, Merle Haggard

A year and a half ago, I made what seemed like the extremely manageable choice to review every single one of Rolling Stone Magazine’s 2020 edition of the Top 500 Albums of all time. Believe it or not, I didn’t realize quite how unmanageable this choice was until looking down the barrel of this five-hour, 100-song Merle Haggard album.

RS anticipated me getting annoyed with them, because their blurb justifies this insane choice by comparing it to James Brown’s Star Time (#54), which was a psychic challenge for me to say the least. Haggard isn’t always as upbeat as Brown, so this compilation album was even more arduous.

That said, my very, very, very long journey with good ol’ Merle actually became more enjoyable the more I listened to him. In fact, I can’t seem to STOP listening to Merle Haggard. And there’s something really special about how this compilation record captures his complexity.

So let’s explore Merle the Man by exploring the things he wrote his songs about over the course of his long career.

Merle: The Outlaw Legend

Johnny Cash once called Haggard “the guy people think I am.” Considering the fact that he’s the freaking Man in Black, that’s a pretty badass thing for him to say.

Haggard lost his father at age 9, was turned into the police by his mother at age 10, and went on to (allegedly) escape prison 17 separate times, according to him. Eventually he ended up going (and staying) in San Quentin for 3 years, where his life changed for the better after he watched Johnny Cash play at the prison (following his career-changing performance at Folsom Prison (#164)).

Merle spins outlaw tales throughout his whole career, starting with the punk rock declaration “Skid Row” and the highway gazing anthem “The Fugitive.” He continued singing outlaw tales like “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” “Pancho & Lefty,” and “Huntsville,” songs that cast villains as heroes and prison as a mere four walls.

I was surprised at how much I connected with this version of Merle, because I’m no grizzled outlaw. But I, too, wear “My Own Kind of Hat” and try not to let societal expectations dictate my life. There’s this delicious individualism that I admire a lot in songs like that. And the sheer swagger of songs like “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can” speaks for itself.

It’s not all tough-guy power-stance, though: Merle humanizes cons and ex-cons with his music. “Branded Man” explores the humanity of ex-cons, who can’t escape judgment even after paying their debt to society, and “I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me” puts you in the shoes of a prisoner with nobody to write to.

And even though you can accuse Merle of romanticizing the plight of the criminal, he also points out that being an outlaw isn’t all its cracked up to be. “Mama Tried,” one of his massive hits, laments all the pain he caused his long-suffering mother, and “Kentucky Gambler” watches a man blow his family’s life savings.

More than an outlaw, Haggard also identifies as a drifter, “Waitin’ For A Train” with nothing but a harmonica and a case of “White Line Fever.” “Ramblin’ Fever” celebrates his complex love of being on the run while calling it a disease. He knows there’s limitations to this way of life, but he can’t help but say, “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.” I know it’s crazy but he made me want to take another road trip.

As his career progressed, his swagger softened. Even as he asserts that he’s a “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” and the “Running Kind,” he admits that he knows Running’s not the answer/But running’s in my nature. In “Red Bandana,” addressed to a fed-up girlfriend, he shrugs his shoulders, saying I’m 41 today still going on 22. Once a hellraiser, always a hellraiser.

Merle: The Musician

Merle said that before he’d seen Cash at San Quentin, “I thought he was kind of corny. I wasn’t really a fan,” but everything changed after he saw how powerful his performance was.

If you’re someone who believes in the healing power of music (yes, I know, I’m a dirty, dirty hippie), that story might make your eyes water. And Merle wrote beautiful songs on the subject: in fact, “Sing A Sad Song” was his first big hit. “Sing Me Back Home” sees him serenade a death row inmate, and “Someone Told My Story” is his answer to “Killing Me Softly.”

Merle went on to become a friend of Cash’s, and went on to make many more talented friends in the industry. One of my other favorite songs of his was “Leonard,” a tribute to Tommy Collins, who wrote several songs for Merle, including “Carolyn.” I always love when superstars give credit to the people who made their success possible.

As his career goes on, Merle’s success within the music industry clearly did not bring him happiness. It’s evident in songs like “Big City” and “Footlights,” where he reflects on being 41 with no place to go when it’s over. That’s the flip side, I suppose, of being a powerful enough performer to change people’s lives.

Merle: The Storyteller

Distinct from Merle: The Musician because stories and music are two different things, and Merle was able to do both. “Sam Hill” and “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” are both bizarre and surreal tales of people who don’t much care what local townsfolk think of them.

“Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man)” is the crown jewel of weirdness, though, following a family band as they travel with their blind stepfather and deaf mother and instruments. It’s kitschy and goofy, but make you wonder at the huge variety of people that really do occupy the world.

He tells grounded stories, too, ones that you will recognize: “Working Man Blues” depicts a family man that longs to abandon his laborious lot in life, and “Grandma Harp” and “The Farmer’s Daughter” both tell similar simple stories of ordinary people. You can’t help but identify with him on tunes like “Everybody’s Had The Blues.”

The stories he tells become less whimsical and more heartbreaking with thoughtful songs like “Kern River” and “What Have You Got Planned tonight Diana,” which both follow men as they run from grief or towards mature love. He even explores the complicated marital problems that come with poverty in “Hungry Eyes” and “In My Next Life.”

He didn’t write every one of these, of course, (see my Hank Williams review, where I start to realize how incestuous country music is) but he sells all of them by singing his heart out. “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel (The Women Make A Fool Out Of Me)” wasn’t written by him, but it might as well have been. That’s the power of a great storyteller: they get to the heart of stories that aren’t even theirs.

Merle: The Drinker

Merle lived a pretty hard-partying lifestyle. A good chunk of his songs talk about the ups and downs of being a drunk. First Merle declares that the “Swinging Doors” of a bar are his home, then on the next song he cries that “The Bottle Let Me Down.”

Some of his drinking songs are tongue-in-cheek, but “I Threw Away The Rose” is darkly lyrical. “Whatever Happened To Me” and “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line” both smell like regret to me.

Still, if drinking wasn’t fun, people wouldn’t drink, so he can’t help but drink some more. “It’s Been A Great Afternoon” sounds like a party I want to be at, and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is relatable. Even if all you’re left with is “Misery and Gin.”

Merle: The Thinker

Merle’s 2010 memoir titled “House of Memories” shares a name with one of his early songs. As his career deepened, so did the themes that Merle tackled with his music. Writing a clever story is one thing, but writing something powerful that makes people think is another.

“In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad),” “Someday We’ll Look Back” and “California Cottonfields” deal with misplaced nostalgia, hard times and broken dreams. Self-loathing makes an appearance, too. “Trouble In Mind” and “I Never Go Around Mirrors” has him sounding regretful and plain old — I guess smoking tons of weed and drinking tons of liquor isn’t good for your voice.

But he still manages to croon like Sinatra on later tales of homesickness and displacement like “Here In Frisco” and “Tulare Dust.” That’s the flip side of being a wanderer.

Merle: The Ambivalent Poster Child

The first line of Merle’s megahit “Okie From Muskogee” is We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee. That is apparently extremely untrue, because Merle Haggard was a heavy pot user (though he did later quit).

That should have been a clue to the world that this song was at least partially written as a satire. Haggard said many conflicting things about his mindset when writing the song, but at one point he’s quoted as saying “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t written ‘Okie.’ Not that I’m ashamed of it. I’m not sure but what bothers me most is the people that identify with it.”

He shouldn’t have been so surprised about that, though — it’s not the only Good ‘Ol Boy song Merle wrote. The single released after “Okie” was “The Fightin’ Side Of Me,” where he tries to intimidate squirrelly people that won’t fight for our freedom. And even though “I’ll Be A Hero (When I Strike)” is essentially war hero propoganda, even I can’t deny that it’s maybe the most effective pump-up country song ever.

I was already Team Merle by the time these songs rolled around, so I couldn’t help but along. And the more I paid attention to the lyrics, the more I realized that Merle went out of his way to make other kinds of strong statements. In fact, Merle was so ambivalent about “Okie’s” success that he actually wanted “Irma Jackson,” a song about an interracial relationship, to be released as its follow-up single. (It wasn’t his first song on the subject, either — see the equally lovely “Go Home.”) His producer refused, but it didn’t have to be a single to ruffle feathers.

Some of his songs later in life did make me roll my eyes (“Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver” and “The Way It Was In ‘51” both made me bristle) but at the same time, I get it. He spoke to people; that’s why they identified with those kinds of songs, and that’s lovely.

Merle: The Rip-Roaring Good Time

This was my other favorite version of Merle. There’s not much to say about this persona, other than that country music is actually a blast to dance to. “Living With The Shades Pulled Down,” “Right Or Wrong,” “Stay A Little Longer,” “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room,” and “Rainbow Stew” all made me feel, dare I say, honky.

Merle: The Big Ol’ Softy

I was SHOCKED when “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star” came on, Merle’s best imitation of a Sixties pop song. This is the Fugitive, the Man in Black’s protégé?!

Merle’s earnest love songs are generally much more fun than his brokenhearted ones. “All Of Me Belongs To You” and “Seeing Eye Dog” are both a blast, and coming from Mr. Heartbreaker himself, I can only imagine the way songs like that made women melt. “The Day The Rains Came” is nearly pastoral. Even “Mary’s Mine,” which is maybe the most boring song I’ve ever heard, was kind of sweet.

Even though “If We’re Not Back In Love By Monday” and “Someday When Things Are Good” are breakup songs, they have a different flavor than his vicious breakup songs (see “California Blues (Blue Yodel #4)” and “I’m Bringin’ Home Good News”). His weary songs are still full of care and love.

Merle: The Brokenhearted Heartbreaker

…Which is probably why songs about broken hearts dominate this compilation album. Dear God. So many brokenhearted love songs.

I have to be honest: I got really sick of them. “If I Had Left It Up To You” and “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go” put me straight to sleep, “I’ll Look Over You” sounds exactly like “Always Wanting You,” and “High On A Hilltop” made me want to scream “Get over it!” And that’s just on Disc 1!

Well, fine, some of the brokenhearted songs grew on me. I appreciated the clear narrative of “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” and started to see elements of the blues and jazz music peek in with “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive.” His songwriting chops really shine through on songs like “Somewhere Between,” which has a philosophical bent tot it.

Just like Merle’s career is complex, his legacy is complex as well. Haggard was married five times, once to backup singer Bonnie Owens, who contributes her voice to songs like the wry “Just Between The Two Of Us.” Owens and Haggard sound beautiful together, and they worked together long after their divorce. That’s sweet, and I enjoyed hearing their harmonies.

But mostly? I was BORED. BORED, BORED, BORED. WHY are there so many sad love songs? I didn’t care, and honestly, I assume you don’t care, so here’s a list of songs that made me want to rip my heart out:

“Today I Started Loving You Again” (Well, I stopped.)

“Is This The Beginning Of The End?” (Yes.)

“I’ll Always Know” (Good for you.)

“Teach Me To Forget” (Happily.)

“I’m Looking For My Mind” (Aren’t we all?)

“You Don’t Even Try” (Guess not.)

“It Meant Goodbye To Me (When You Said Hello To Him” (It sure did.)

“Silver Wings” (Airplane song, very original.)

“I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Yes, you can.)

“It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)” (Let that poor girl go!)

“If We Make It Through December” (We won’t.)

“The Emptiest Arms in the World” (Aw, poor baby.)

“Things Aren’t Funny Anymore” (Yes, they are.)

“It’s All In The Movies” (I’m out of jokes.)

“You Take Me For Granted”

“That’s The Way Love Goes”

Merle: The Hypocrite

“Holding Things Together” is about a man lamenting having to raise his kids alone after his wife left them. Well, gee, Merle, sounds like you mighta did that before!

I was so sick of listening to Merle Haggard while I was writing this review, but you know what? Now I can’t STOP listening to Merle Haggard. I keep searching for live performances of him and learning his music on the guitar. I feel like becoming an outlaw.

But now it’s done, and I am free. Merle Haggard died on his 79th birthday in 2016, and I died five minutes after I finished this album review.

Review #283: Bad Girls, Donna Summer

Review #285: Third/Sister Lover, Big Star

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