By Brian Ives
One of Merle Haggard’s most famous songs was 1969’s “Okie from Muskogee,” a song which he wrote to support the troops in Vietnam; it also criticized the counter-culture and those who protested the war. “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,” he sang. “We don’t take our trips on LSD/We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/’Cause we like livin’ right, and bein’ free.”
Further, “We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.” Clearly, the guy wasn’t a fan of rock and roll back then. Which isn’t to say that the feeling was mutual: early on, rock bands started covering him (and over the years, his stance mellowed as well, particularly on marijuana, thanks to his friendship with Willie Nelson).
Here are ten covers of Merle songs that highlight just how influential Haggard was.
The Grateful Dead – “Mama Tried”: No one represented the marijuana smoking, LSD tripping miscreants that Merle sang about in “Okie” like the guys from the Grateful Dead, but they didn’t take it personally. The Grateful Dead put “Mama Tried” into their repertoire in the early ’70s. Funny enough, they would also cover “Okie From Muskogee.”
The Byrds – “Life in Prison” The Byrds started out as very much a part of the ’60s scene that would have been off-putting to Hag and his buddies. But when Gram Parsons joined the band, they took a much more country (and some would say, conservative) tone. They covered this song, written by Haggard who in fact spent some time in prison, for their classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo album.
The Flying Burrito Brothers – “White Line Fever” After the Byrds, Parsons and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman continued merging country and rock and roll with the Flying Burrito Brothers. Merle’s trucker anthem was the song that kicked off the band’s self titled 1971 album.
Emmylou Harris – “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” Who hasn’t been there before? Emmylou Harris started out as a folk singer, but her friend Gram Parsons (him again!) turned her on to country music. This cover came early in her solo career.
Lynyrd Skynyrd – “Honky Tonk Night Time Man” Sure, the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers brought country music to the counter culture audience, but Skynyrd merged rock and roll with the redneck state of mind. This Merle cover made the cut on their legendary album Street Survivors.
George Jones – “I Always Get Lucky With You” There’s no greater compliment in country music than having your song covered by George Jones, arguably the genre’s greatest male vocalist.
Dolly Parton – “Life’s Like Poetry” What’s better than having George Jones cover your song? Having George Jones and Dolly Parton each cover your songs. Although Hag was always regarded as an “outlaw,” these covers show how much respect he got in Nashville.
Lucinda Williams – “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” Williams, the queen of alt-country, recorded this song for a 1994 tribute album, Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute To Merle Haggard, which also featured Dwight Yoakam, Marshall Crenshaw and Billy Joe Shaver.
John Doe – “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line” Doe is the lead singer of X, a punk rock band with a heavy country influence; here, he goes full country to pay tribute to Hag (this is also off of Tulare Dust: A Songwriters’ Tribute To Merle Haggard).
Whiskeytown – “Silver Wings” The band is mostly well known for their ex-leader Ryan Adams. In their day, they were a vital part of the “No Depression” scene that introduced Generation X to country music.