Merle Haggard strove for lyrical simplicity: ‘The best songs feel like they’ve always been here’

Merle Haggard is seen at his ranch in California in 2007.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

Country singer and songwriter Merle Haggard, who died Wednesday, insisted that American country songwriting was an “art form.” He spent virtually his entire life constructing lyrics, many of which occurred to him as he went about his daily activities.

The songs he wrote channeled random observations, comments from crew members, stray memories. In 2003, he explained to Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn his philosophy. He drew a distinction between songs and poetry. Songs should not be like poems, he said: “The best songs feel like they’ve always been here.”

He strove for complete simplicity -- as if snippets of casual conversation had abruptly acquired melody. Hilburn said his gift was writing lyrics that appeared so unadorned that “it is hard to see the craft involved.”


Below is a sample of Haggard lyrics:

“I grew up in an oil town
But my gusher never came in”
-- “Kern River” (1985)

“I raised a lotta Cain back in my younger days
While mama used to pray my crops would fail”
-- “The Fugitive” (1966)

“I remember daddy prayin’ for a better way of life
But I don’t recall a change of any size
Just a little loss of courage, as their age began to show
And more sadness in my mama’s hungry eyes”
-- “Hungry Eyes” (1969)

“Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear
Beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen
Football’s still the roughest thing on campus
And the kids here still respect the college dean”
-- “Okie From Muskogee” (1969)

“Every fool has a rainbow
But he never seems to find
The reward that should be waiting
At the end of the line
He’ll give up a bed of roses
For a hammock filled with thorns
And go chasing after rainbows
Every time a dream is born”
-- “Every Fool Has a Rainbow” (1969)

“I’ve always had a bottle I could turn to
And lately I’ve been turnin’ every day
But the wine don’t take effect the way it used to
And I’m hurtin’ in an old familiar way”
-- “The Bottle Let Me Down” (1966)

“Silver wings, shining in the sunlight,
Roaring engines, headed somewhere in flight
They’re taking you away, leaving me lonely
Silver wings, slowly fading out of sight”
-- “Silver Wings” (1969)

“I wish a buck was still silver
It was back when the country was strong
Back before Elvis, before the Vietnam War came along”
-- “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)” (1982)

“One and only rebel child
From family meek and mild
My mama seemed to know what lay in store
‘Spite of all my Sunday learnin’
Toward the bad I kept on turnin’
Till mama couldn’t hold me anymore”
-- “Mama Tried” (1968)

“I wonder just what makes a man keep pushin’ on
What makes me keep on hummin’ this old highway song
I’ve been from coast to coast a hundred times or more
And I ain’t found one single place I haven’t been before”
-- “White Line Fever” (1970)

“Turn me loose, set me free
Somewhere in the middle of Montana
Gimme all I got comin’ to me”
-- “Big City” (1982)

“Take me away
And turn back the years
And sing me back home before I die”
-- “Sing Me Back Home” (1967)


Merle Haggard: Life in pictures

Video playlist: Merle Haggard performances


From the archives: Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson show songwriting at its best