Just in case you needed proof of how skilled Merle Haggard was as a singer and songwriter, look no further than his song “Big City.”
Released in 1982 as the second single from his album of the same name, the song became Haggard’s 27th No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. But what’s most interesting is the story behind the song. If you have not heard it yet, then get yourself ready to be blown away. If you already do, then you know that it’s worth hearing again.
The Story Behind Merle Haggard’s Song “Big City”
Written by Merle Haggard himself with the help of his childhood friend Dean Holloway, “Big City” is a song about the plight of a working man.
“Been working every day since I was twenty. Haven’t got a thing to show for anything I’ve done. There’s folks who never work, and they’ve got plenty. Think it’s time some guys like me had some fun,” the song goes.
Back in 1981, Haggard and his band, The Strangers, just finished a grueling two-day recording session at a studio in Los Angeles. When he got a break, he left to check on his longtime friend and tour bus driver, Dean Holloway, who had been sitting in the hot vehicle for hours.
Haggard asked him how he was doing, to which Holloway responded, “I hate this place. I’m tired of this dirty old city.” That one remark sparked a fire in the country artist. With a pad of paper, Haggard started writing a song, and Holloway’s simple response became the song’s first line.
Haggard then kept asking Holloway questions like where he would rather be. Holloway answered by saying, “If it were up to me, it’d be somewhere in the middle of damn Montana.” A part of that statement has also become part of the song.
“I imagined a family leaving Detroit and happy to be getting out,” Haggard said.
After Haggard finished off scribbling his new piece, he rushed into the studio. The band was already packing up when Haggard burst back, but he told them to get their instruments back out to record one last song. Remarkably, they recorded “Big City” in just one take, without even bothering to rehearse it beforehand.
“We didn’t have an ending, but the band came up with one they thought I’d like and ran me off as we wound down,” Haggard said. He also credited Holloway as a writer of the song, entitling him to half the royalties of it, which amounted to about half a million dollars for Holloway.
Today, “Big City” remained a fan-favorite part of Merle Haggard’s sets until the last years of his life. You can watch one of the most remarkable Merle Haggard’s performances of “Big City” in the video below.