In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Merle Haggard died on April 6th, his 79th birthday. On another April 6th, eleven years earlier, he celebrated his birthday in Chicago, opening the spring run of Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour.”
I don’t know what he did for most of that 66th birthday, but I do know how five minutes or so was spent. He was standing outside his tour bus, listening to a handful of Dylan obsessives sing “Happy Birthday” to him. I was one of them.
Though he had a reputation as a bit of a grump (his 1990 New Yorker profile was simply titled “Ornery”), he was completely gracious at this unanticipated and surely off-key serenade. He’d only stepped off his bus to stretch his legs, and seeing a group of Dylan obsessives sprint across the street to aurally accost him was probably not the break he had in mind. But he smiled, said thanks, shook hands all around. Someone even made a rarely-played song request – and he dutifully played it at that evening’s concert.
Another side of his generosity was that, for this particular tour, he refrained from singing one of his signature songs, the prisoner’s prayer “Sing Me Back Home.” Having covered it once the previous year, Dylan claimed it for himself that tour, playing it semi-regularly – though inexplicably never inviting Merle to join him, nor even letting Merle play it on the nights Dylan didn’t (which was most nights). Luckily, Dylan did a terrific job, showing his true appreciation for Haggard’s songwriting years before his anecdote about Merle provoked a proverbial tempest in a teapot (Rolling Stone: “Why Does Bob Dylan Hate Merle Haggard?”)
Dylan’s is only one of many classic covers of Merle’s songs over the years. Though Haggard was no slouch at covers himself – his tribute albums to Jimmie Rodgers and Elvis are both worth getting – today we remember Haggard the songwriter. Here are over 20 of the greatest covers of Haggard songs, by both peers and acolytes.
Bob Dylan – Sing Me Back Home (Live in Chicago 4/2/05)
Keith Richards – Sing Me Back Home (Version II)
The Everly Brothers – Sing Me Back Home
If they ever make the biopic Merle Haggard’s life deserves, the pivotal scene will be him watching Johnny Cash perform in San Quentin prison. Haggard had been sent after a botched robbery, and seeing Cash inspired him to turn from petty crime to music, making him the rare outlaw-country figure who actually was an outlaw (Cash famously told Haggard years later, “Merle, you’re everything people think I am”). No surprise, then, that several of Haggard’s early hits were prison themed: “Mama Tried,” “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”, and “Sing Me Back Home.” The latter is arguably the greatest song he ever wrote. Not many songs have earned covers by both Bob Dylan and a Rolling Stone.
At the time Richards covered this, he was something of an outlaw himself. Only one month prior, he had been busted in a major heroin sting, and he was spending his days waiting for the hammer to fall, with years of jail time a real possibility. While cooling his heels in a Toronto studio, prison on the brain, he recorded two deeply moving versions of this song. This has circulated on bootlegs for years, but inexplicably never been given a proper release (hence the static-y recording). There’s an entirely solo version as well, but I prefer this second take with an understated electric guitar accompanying Keith’s piano.
Coming from the opposite end of the rebel spectrum are the Everly Brothers. For two clean-cut Iowa kids, Don and Phil sure do like Merle’s prison songs. They recorded both “Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home” on their 1968 album Roots. The former is a perfectly adequate slice of California country-rock, but the latter stands as one of the most beautiful performances of their career, years after the hits had basically dried up. Their key inspiration is segueing into Haggard’s prison hymn from an actual hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross” (the introductory conversation with their mom is a little cornball, but does not detract from the music that follows).
The Grateful Dead – Mama Tried
Langhorne Slim – Mama Tried
While Dylan’s interest in playing “Sing Me Back Home” lasted just nine months, the Dead covered “Mama Tried” their entire career. They first performed it in San Francisco in 1969 and were still covering it all the way up until Garcia’s death in 1995. Interestingly, perhaps out of reverence, in all that time they never used the song as a departure point for live jamming. The longest version barely hits three minutes, a mere blink by live Dead standards. It’s the sort of Dead that will appeal to Workingman’s Dead fans, a tight country-rock band with beautiful harmonies and a few understated guitar licks. Langhorne Slim, in turn, covers the cover on a 2001 Dead tribute album.
A Dead post-script: They also backed up the Beach Boys on a deeply sarcastic cover of Haggard’s anti-hippie “Okie From Muskogee” in 1971, which is worth hearing as a historical novelty but not much more. The Dead paired with Brian Wilson would be interesting. The Dead paired with Mike Love is not.
The Byrds – Life in Prison [Rehearsal Version, Gram Parsons Vocal]
The Young Sinclairs – Running Kind
The Byrds covered Haggard’s “Life in Prison” on their classic country album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, no doubt influenced by new member Gram Parsons (whose Flying Burrito Brothers covered a number of Merle’s songs). In fact, Gram even does vocals on this rehearsal take, replaced by Roger McGuinn on the album. With Gram or Roger, the whole album is a classic, a country departure from the Byrds’ iconic sound.
Want to hear what the old Byrds would have sounded like doing Merle? A few years ago the Young Sinclairs did an able facsimile, all jingle-jangle twelve-string and peppy folk-rock bounce, with no pedal steel in sight.
Uncle Tupelo Coffee Creek – Movin’ On
Whiskeytown – Silver Wings
Old ’97s – Harold’s Super Service
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Because of Your Eyes
Phosphorescent – Reasons to Quit
Haggard’s influence on the alt-country movement of the ’90s can be seen in this set of covers. It seems all the pivotal figures of that movement took a turn singing Merle – Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar in
Uncle Tupelo [correction: a commenter notes this is technically by Coffee Creek, a Tupelo side project with Farrar and Tweedy], Ryan Adams in Whiskeytown, Rhett Miller in Old 97s (the latter did so twice, both “Mama Tried” and this cover of a Haggard rarity written by Bobby Wayne). More recently, Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) and Matthew Houck (aka Phosphorescent) have carried the Merle mantle forward now that alt-country has been enwrapped in the broader “Americana.”
Throw Rag featuring Lemmy – The Bottle Let Me Down
Supersuckers – I Can’t Hold Myself in Line
The Fall – White Line Fever
Cracker – The Bottle Let Me Down
John Doe and the Sadies – Are The Good Times Really Over For Good?
Haggard didn’t just inspire country-rock bands – he inspired actual honest-to-god rockers who ordinarily might not have had much interest in country. This roaring Throw Rag cover features Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister (another recently-departed legend) growling over a blast of distortion and drums, while Supersuckers bring a punk energy to race through the song in a minute and a half. In the other three, The Fall, Cracker, and X’s John Doe find a middle ground between Merle country and their own style.
Junior Wells – Today I Started Loving You Again
Holly Cole – If We Make It Through December
Crooked Fingers – Shelly’s Winter Love
Haggard’s influence goes beyond country or rock too, as evidenced by this three-pack. The harmonica great Junior Wells turns a 1968 b-side into a blues blast. Holly Cole does a beautiful jazz-piano ballad of Haggard’s unlikely Christmas classic (put it on your depressing-Christmas mixtape after “Fairytale of New York”). And Crooked Fingers defy easy genre placement, but their baroque-folk-choral-pop cover of a deep cut is one of the best Hag covers ever put to tape.
Teddy & Chano – Jeg Er Faktisk Stolt Af Hvad Jeg Kan [I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am]
This is a category all its own: a Danish translation of a Haggard hit. They do an able job musically, though I’m really curious how well a line like “This ol’ mental fat I’m chewin’ didn’t take a lot of doin'” translates.
Dave Alvin – Kern River
Unlike many of his peers, Haggard kept writing classics well after his commercial peak. 2010’s “I’ve Seen It Go Away” stands with his best songs ever; the old-singer-looks-back-wistfully tune became a cliche after Johnny Cash’s American albums, but this is how it’s done right. No one has covered that yet, though, so we’ll wrap on 1985’s “Kern River.” Emmylou Harris did a nice version on her 2008 album All I Intended to Be, but nothing beats Dave Alvin’s haunting cover four years prior.