Merle Haggard’s ‘Misery and Gin’: Story Behind the Heartbreaking Drinking Song

by Matthew Wilson

They say you can’t find happiness at the bottom of a bottle. Country singer Merle Haggard knows that better than most in his classic “Misery and Gin.”

The song featured as a single on Haggard’s album “Back to the Barrooms,” which released in 1980. And the late country artist broke everyone’s heart. Rock n’ Roll may have drugs, wild nights, and partying. But country music has liquor, lonesome nights, and the blues.

Haggard’s tune is one of the country music’s best barroom ballads, even if it is one of its saddest as well. The country singer laments that the liquor doesn’t solve his problems. The memories and sad times that plague him remain even as his senses and cognitive functions fail him. Ultimately at, the center of the song like many is a broken relationship that the narrator can’t fix and just tries his best to forget.

Haggard is haunting with lyrics like “Memories and drinks don’t mix too well/ And jukebox records don’t play those wedding bells/ Looking at the world through the bottom of a glass/ All I see is a man who’s fadin’ fast.

Merle Haggard Sings From Experience

There are good singers, then there are great singers. The difference is usually in the authenticity behind the mic. Haggard made a living singing sad songs. But more importantly, he made audiences believe those songs were about him. He commanded his tunes with an authority that made even Johnny Cash dub him the real deal.

Haggard didn’t write “Misery and Gin” back in the 80s. That honor belongs to both David Cantwell and Tin Pan Alley, who came together to make their audiences tear-up. But he certainly related to the tune and the heartbreaking message at its center. The country singer drew upon his own struggling marriage.

Haggard and his then-wife Leona Williams were going through difficulties in their marriage. Just three years later, they would divorce for good. The country singer always struggled in the women department. Over the course of his life, Haggard married a total of five times.

He just couldn’t seem to make a marriage work until he met Theresa Ann Lane. The couple married in 1993 and stayed together until Haggard’s death. Haggard’s channeled all of this into his music, giving songs like “Misery and Gin” a realistic edge.

Movie fans may remember the tune from the Clint Eastwood film “Bronco Billy,” which released in 1980. The tune was actually written for the film and featured on its soundtrack. That film followed Eastwood as the central figure of “Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show,” a rundown traveling circus.

That film also brought the classic “Bar Room Buddies,” but “Misery and Gin” is the song in question. While the film doesn’t rank among Eastwood’s greatest, at least its soundtrack was more than up to par. In fact in the years since, other country artists had to pay homage to Haggard by trying their hand at the song.

Miranda Lambert, Randy Rogers, and Joe Nichols were among the singers that brought the tune to life since 1980. Each put their own spin on the now-classic barroom ballad.

“‘Misery and Gin’ is the quintessential country song,” Rogers told Wide Open Country. “Drowning out heartache, drink by drink is as country as it gets. The song is sad and real and poetic all at the same time – all the things Hag was a master at.”

But Merle Haggard performed the song the best. The tune will always rank among his catalogue, given Haggard’s power behind the mournful verses.