Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Merle Haggard, “Big City”

“Big City”

Merle Haggard

Written by Merle Haggard and Dean Holloway


#1 (1 week)

April 10, 1982

You know it’s a damn good song when even a native New Yorker can enjoy Merle Haggard’s big city diss track.

And hey, New York City was pretty dirty and dangerous back in the day.

Now this song isn’t necessarily about New York City, as the northern migration of southerners looking for industrial work distributed them all over the rust belt, and New York has been more of a mecca for immigrants seeking new opportunities for their families and small town folks looking to live their lives more freely and openly.

So I get why some people come here from the south, but I can’t imagine a guy like Haggard’s “Big City” protagonist being anything but absolutely miserable. He sounds like he’d hate the sidewalks even if they were clean, and he’s clearly better suited for the wide open spaces of Montana.

As Sly Stone sang, “Different strokes for different folks.”

Regardless, urban malaise has never sounded better than it does on “Big City,” and Haggard is in peak form as a singer, songwriter, and musician on this track.

Given that I’m on record that he’s the best male artist in country music history, this is truly the best of the best.

“Big City” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. Merle Haggard had his heyday before I got into country music, so I’ve had to go back and find his music. This is the one that got me to take a deep dive into the Hag’s amazing catalog. He’s second only to George Jones for me as the best male artist in country music history.

    One reason I think this song works so well is because the narrator is nostalgic for the times he was in the wide open rural areas and looking forward to getting back there. He shuns the system and the cities themselves, but not the people in them. Unlike Hank Jr. and a whole line of bro-country singers and songs, nothing here says city folks are soft, inferior, can’t bait fishing lines, skin buck deer, or whatever else they deem to be sufficiently masculine and, by proxy, sufficiently country.

    The early 80s are probably my favorite Haggard era.

  2. Haggard is singing about being stuck in place. The song is all fantasy and fiction. David Cantwell described this single as “a daydreaming respite from the working man’s blues.”

    Haggard’s genius is knowing that buckets of alienation and loneliness can be drawn from either a country stream or a city tap. This song is not a condemnation of urban living so much as it is one person recognizing they are not where they belong, or that opportunity can be lacking in either the city or the country. Neither place is a defence against the human condition. Urban cowboys and country plowboys both dream of better days and better ways.

    This emotional thread is what connects Jimmie Rodgers to Merle Haggard to Randy Travis to Alan Jackson. I still hear this same emotional connection in contemporary country songs like Ian Noe’s “Appalachia Haze.”

    The real kick to the head is knowing that anyone relating to the lyrics of “Big City” will be back at that job they can’t afford to quit or see their way out of come Monday.

    At any rate, they will never meet anyone in Montana, much less themself.

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