These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.
An inarguable legend of country music, Merle Haggard had only one Top 40 single during his career. He was dominant of the country charts, delivering thirty-six #1 songs (and two more collaborations with others that reached the pinnacle), including a stretch from 1971 to 1976 when practically every single landed at the top. Across sixteen singles, he the forlorn ballad “The Emptiest Arms in the World” stalled out at #3 and novelty Christmas number “Santa Claus and Popcorn” missed the chart entirely. Every other single climbed as high as it could.
Although “If We Make It Through December” was Haggard’s only single to crack the main Billboard Top 40, he came tantalizing close on one other occasion. Co-written Roy Edward Burns, the drummer in Haggard’s band at the time, “Okie from Muskogee” aimed some country-boy conservative ire at the hippies who were then taking to the streets to protest ongoing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/ We don’t take our trips on LSD/ We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/ We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.” It’s familiar buckshot fired in the culture war, the patriotic reverence for militaristic endeavors used as a means of passing disdainful judgment on the selfish ingrates who grouse about endless wars.
There was some speculation that Haggard always meant the song to be a satire of conservative attitudes, but he always insisted that wasn’t the case, even as he was also penning songs such as “Irma Jackson,” which told an interracial love story with a level of sympathy far removed from the prevailing attitudes of listeners who championed “Okie from Muskogee.” Years later, Haggard told American Songwriter the complaining protagonist of “Okie from Muskogee” accurately reflect his own views at the time, though he attributed those opinions to being “dumb as a rock” when it came to the power structure deceptions that were used to justify the war.
“If you use that song now, it’s a really good snapshot of how dumb we were in the past,” said Haggard. “They had me fooled, too. I’ve become educated. I think one of the bigger mistakes politicians do is to get embarrassed when somebody catches them changing their opinion. God, what if they learned the truth since they expressed themselves in the past? I’ve learned the truth since I wrote that song. I play it now with a different projection.”
“Okie from Muskogee” peaked at #41 on the chart for January 2, 1970.
Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.