My Friends Are Gonna Be Strangers: 18 Readings From The Book Of Hag

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When Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson take the Verizon stage for tonight's "Who's More Grizzled?" grudge match, they'll bring with them a century of experience as two of the most iconoclastic, poetic voices in popular song, country or any other genre. No disrespect to Kristofferson (four words: "Sunday Morning Comin' Down"; okay, eight: "Me and Bobby McGee"), it's Haggard - now all of 72 years young - who's been the real beacon for us lately.

Even the bottle lets us down sometimes, but the Hag never does. Rocks Off has spent the past few days combing one of the true jewels of our collection, Capitol's 1996 box set Down Every Road (100 songs! Buy it!), for Merle's pearls of wisdom on all manner of subjects. If this makes us like our dad, we couldn't be happier. Stay, and teach me to forget.

Bars and Taverns

A popular setting for some of Haggard's earliest breakthrough singles, which in turn became among the defining songs for honky-tonk as we know it today. A less common subject in his later years, Haggard periodically returned to the barstool whenever he needed a drink. We can relate.

"Swinging Doors": Set the standard for honky-tonk tunes about barrooms as second homes. "In here the atmosphere's just right for heartaches/ And thanks to you I'm always here 'til closing time."

"Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down": Sooner or later, we've all been here. "Tonight your memory found me much too sober/ Couldn't drink enough to keep you off my mind." One of the greatest couplets in country-music history.

"I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink": Ornery as ever, Hag turns being kicked out of the house into a one-man barstool party, with a tasty saxophone break to boot. "Ain't no woman gonna change the way I think/ Think I'll just stay here and drink."

Freedom and Individuality

A straight shooter until the end, Haggard has always called 'em exactly like he's seen 'em no matter who he pisses off. Still does.

"Okie from Muskogee": Arguably Hag's best-known song - although not his biggest hit - "Okie" struck a chord with Richard Nixon's small-town "silent majority" and peaked just outside the Billboard Top 40 in 1970. "We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street/ We like livin' right and bein' free."

"I Take a Lot of Pride In What I Am": Haggard draws on his hardscrabble early years to draft as good a manifesto as anyone can in less than three minutes. "I've never been nobody's idol, but at least I got a title/ I take a lot of pride in what I am."

"The Running Kind": Once a rolling stone, always a rolling stone. "Every front door found me hoping I would find the back door open/ There just had to be an exit for the running kind."


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