Merle Haggard may just be my favorite country music songwriter of all time. And in the wake of his death Wednesday, at 79, you've likely heard plenty of his hits: "Mama Tried," "Okie From Muskogee," "Today I Started Loving You Again" and many, many other timeless gems.
But for a guy who recorded 47 studio albums in his lifetime, Haggard also recorded a lot of strange castoffs -- some in reaction to a current political issue, some as a reflection of Hag's day-drunk goofy side, and some as just good ol' album filler.
I stayed up until 1am last night listening to Haggard's records, primarily from his 1960s Capitol Records era, his steely Telecaster and comforting baritone eventually lulling me to sleep on the couch in a mix of recognizable hits and deep cuts. Here are five of the more unusual songs from Merle Haggard that you're likely not hearing played on the radio this week.
1. 'The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp'
Sung from a son's point of view, this song tells the story of a mother who turns to prostitution to make ends meet after her husband runs off with another woman. Instead of shame at the parade of men who visit the house after-hours, the son is proud of his mom. (An early example of anti-slut-shaming, you could say.)
Oh, the path was deep and wide
From footsteps leading to our cabin
Above the door there burned a scarlet lamp
And late at night a hand would knock
And there would stand a stranger
Yes, I'm the son of Hickory Holler's tramp
2. 'Uncle Lem'
Haggard wrestled with his redneck image his whole life, and his fans often point to songs like "Irma Jackson," an empathetic take on interracial love, to refute accusations of racism. Here's another: the story of a former slave whose house is so run-down that the local Ladies Garden Club wants it torn down. They go to his house with the mayor in tow to deliver the notice for demolition, only to find the man has died in his front-porch rocking chair. Nearby, they find a will scrawled on a brown paper bag, bequeathing his entire property to -- you guessed it -- the Ladies Garden Club.
He bought that shack and piece of earth
For the highest price you'd pay
His Mom was bought and sold there
Uncle Lem was born a slave
3. 'The Girl Turned Ripe'
I honestly don't know if I can add anything to this very bizarre song about a girl who turns 18.
Had an uncle who was farmin' down in Tennessee
And I stopped by to see him there, brought this friend with me
He had a daughter, 17, whose name was Clementine
And sure enough they fell in love, her and this friend of mine
He said, "The girl turned ripe and the pickers came today"
4. 'Just Between the Two of Us'
This duet with Bonnie Owens is actually pretty heartbreaking, telling the story of a couple who've lost so much passion for their relationship that they don't even bother to disagree anymore. But the backstory is wild: while helping create the "Bakersfield sound" with his friend Buck Owens, Haggard flew up to Seattle and stealthily wooed Owens' wife, Bonnie. He married her in Tijuana two weeks later. Crazy.
Wish we could go back again to days that used to be
We fought a lot but even then I knew you cared for me
Now we get along so well no teardrops ever fall
But there's no love, no anything, there's nothing left at all
5. 'Me and Crippled Soldiers Give a Damn'
One of Haggard's several forays into politics (his 2007 salute to Hillary Clinton drew special attention), this song was written in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's 1989 decision to allow flag-burning as an expression of free speech. In it, Haggard may have penned the first country-music instance of Godwin's Law, inexplicably bringing up Hitler and the holocaust in the discussion.
Might as well burn the bill of rights as well
And let our country go straight to hell
Only me and crippled soldiers give a damn