In February 1969, Merle Haggard dropped his first single, “Hungry Eyes,” from his 10th studio album A Portrait of Merle Haggard. And this was not just a chart-topping hit, it was arguably one of the greatest Merle Haggard songs whose impact transcended into the history of country music.
Meaning Behind the Song
Merle Haggard wrote “Hungry Eyes,” which was sometimes called “Mama’s Hungry Eyes,” and it was one of the 250 he penned in his entire music career (out of the more than 600 songs he recorded). In an article published by the Los Angeles Times, Haggard explained to music critic Robert Hilburn that he had a distinction between songs and poetry in a sense that songs shouldn’t be like poems. He said, “The best songs feel like they’ve always been here.”
And he carried that simplicity in all of his pieces.
In his song “Hungry Eyes,” he wrote about an experience of living in “a canvas-covered cabin in a crowded labour camp.” He talked about the heartbreaking failure of his daddy who worked and prayed so hard for a better life, only to sadly end up without any change of any size. All he noticed was how much older his mama and daddy started to look, and the sadness in his mama’s hungry eyes.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying that they lived a poor life. When he grew up, he finally realized that it was because of “another” class of people who decided that they were just below them. They had no choice.
While it wasn’t autobiographical, as Haggard was born in a converted box car, Dwight Yoakam said that a part of the lyrics was about his father’s death. In his Rolling Stone’s tribute column for the legendary singer, he noted that Haggard witnessed his father as the strongest man on earth and seeing him completely helpless overwhelmed him. And after his father’s death, he never really settled down as a teenager. Thus began his journey in the world of crime and jail.
This song feels like a casual conversation between a man and his audience, reminiscing his story with a melody. And that delivery definitely made it hit harder. After all, we’ve all experienced that hardscrabble life at one point.
Listen to Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes” below.