In the world of outlaw country, few artists are as revered as Merle Haggard. The rough-hewn singer behind such hits as “Okie from Muskogee” and “Are the Good Times Really Over For Good” noted 38 number one hits on the Billboard Country charts, a number of which crossed over into other charts as well. After his death in 2016, the outpouring of admiration poured in from across genre lines. Haggard was so beloved that a number of artists with chart-topping singles of their own took the time to pay him the ultimate tribute of covering his songs. Here are seven of the best.
7. Jim Croce- “Mama Tried”
Folk rocker Jim Croce's career was too short. He was just 30 years old when he died in a 1973 plane crash. Fortunately for the world, Croce left behind not only the timeless hits he recorded on his albums but also a number of unreleased demos, some of which were released in a 2003 album curated by Croce's wife and son A.J. titled Home Recordings: Americana. In addition to original songs, Croce also showed his love for classic country with a number of country covers, including this one of Haggard's 1973 chart-topper “Mama Tried.”
6. Throw Rag feat. Lemmy- “The Bottle Let Me Down”
Merle Haggard wasn't just a hero to country and Americana musicians. This was best illustrated when rockers Throw Rag recorded a cover of Haggard's 1966 hit “The Bottle Let Me Down” and brought in a guest vocalist in Lemmy from Motorhead. The hard-drinking, hard living Motorhead frontman's signature snarl worked well with Haggard's material and “The Bottle Let Me Down” was a minor hit for Throw Rag.
5. Over the Rhine- “If We Make It Through December”
In 1973, Merle Haggard released a Christmas album titled Merle Haggard's Christmas Present. Despite releasing a number of upbeat standards, Haggards fans were most drawn to the album's most bleak number, “If We Make It Through December.” When Americana duo Over the Rhine recorded their own holiday album, Blood Oranges in the Snow, in 2014, they included a cover of Haggard's hit about a dad who struggles with how to pay his debts during the holidays as part of the collection. Over the Rhine has always been best when they've had weighty material to sink their teeth into and “If We Make It Through December” provided just that.
4. Jewel with Merle Haggard- “That's The Way Love Goes”
These days it's not uncommon for pop stars to cross over and perform with country artists but in 1999 it was a novel idea to have country's peak outlaw do a duet with folksy pop star Jewel. But the magic, captured at the 1999 CMA Awards show, was obvious from the moment the pair stepped on stage to perform Haggard's 1983 hit “That's the Way Love Goes.” The duet was so successful it was released as a single and found its way to the charts once again.
3. Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan- “Pancho and Lefty”
In fairness, Merle Haggard's own version of “Pancho and Lefty,” recorded with his longtime friend Willie Nelson, was a cover itself, from songwriting legend Townes Van Zandt. But Willie and Merle's rendition, recorded as a duet, has been the standard by which most subsequent cover versions have been measured. Over the years, Nelson has invited a number of artists to join him for Haggard's part on “Pancho and Lefty,” but his version with folk legend Bob Dylan stands out as the best.
2. John Doe and Hayes Carll- “I Always Get Lucky With You”
“I Always Get Lucky With You” was never a hit song for Merle Haggard. Instead, Haggard chose not to release it as a single from his 1981 album Big City, but later gave it to George Jones, who made it a #1 hit in 1983. This cover, recorded by John Doe, frontman for punk pioneers X and Americana star Hayes Carll, again shows the diverse community of musicians who appreciated Haggard's songs. The pair recorded the song for Sirius XM in 2016.
1. The Byrds- “Life in Prison”
When the band that arguably helped invent country-rock releases one of your songs on the album that is considered by many to be the blueprint for that genre, it's going to warrant a high place in any list of best covers. Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Byrds did just that in 1968 on their landmark Sweetheart of the Rodeo, releasing Haggard's song from just a year before, “Life in Prison” as part of the collection. While Sweetheart of the Rodeo was not a major commercial success upon release, its legacy has grown to the point that surviving members of the band have toured to celebrate it as recently as 2018.