Merle Haggard scored his seventh chart-topping hit when “Workin’ Man Blues” ascended to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart on August 16, 1969.
Blue-collar anthems are a part of country music’s DNA. Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” (1956), Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” (1977), Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” (1980), and Alabama’s “40 Hour Week (For a Livin’)” (1985) are just a handful of the hard-working songs that have topped the country chart over the years.
In the mid-1960s, Merle Haggard emerged as country music’s “Poet of the Common Man” with songs like “The Bottle Let Me Down” in 1966 and “Mama Tried” in 1968. Of course, a decade before, Merle landed himself in the San Quentin Penitentiary in 1958. Merle did a stretch of almost three years for robbery, before being paroled in 1960. Famously, Johnny Cash’s New Year’s Day performance at San Quentin in 1959 helped motivate Merle to turn his life around—and focus on music.
“There’s a certain magic that must have been born in [Johnny Cash],” Merle wrote in his 1981 autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. “He can grab an audience and hold them until the last chorus.”
Likewise, Merle possessed the same magic as his musical hero.
Merle Works to the Top
A desire to pay tribute to his working-class fan base and Johnny’s style inspired Merle to write “Workin’ Man Blues.” Merle’s declaration was an instant winner: “I keep my nose on the grindstone, I work hard every day / Might get a little tired on the weekend, after I draw my pay / But I’ll go back workin’, come Monday morning I’m right back with the crew / I’ll drink a little beer that evening / Sing a little bit of these working man blues.”
Merle featured the tune on his 1969 album, A Portrait of Merle Haggard. After the album’s lead single, “Hungry Eyes,” topped the charts in May, Merle released “Workin’ Man Blues” in June 1969. Like “Hungry Eyes,” “Workin’ Man Blues” worked its way up the charts in less than two months. The tune reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart on August 16, 1969.
In a strange twist of fate, “Workin’ Man Blues” was knocked out of the top spot the next week by Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” Johnny had recorded the live song at a concert in San Quentin Penitentiary earlier in the year.
Of course, after “Hungry Eyes” and “Workin’ Man Blues” reached No. 1, Merle dropped back-to-back chart-topping hits “Okie From Muskogee” (1969) and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (1970) to bring his streak to four consecutive No. 1 singles.
And if you were wondering, Johnny Cash was a big fan of “Workin’ Man Blues.” Check out the Man in Black’s rendition of the tune from The Johnny Cash Show, which ran from 1969 to 1971 on ABC.