This review covers:
- Strangers/Swinging Doors And The Bottle Let Me Down
- I'm A Lonesome Fugitive/Branded Man
- Sing Me Back Home/The Legend Of Bonnie & Clyde
- Mama Tried/Pride In What I Am
- Hag/Someday We'll Look Back
EMI has declared 2006 to be "the year of Hag" and has begun the celebration by reissuing 10 of Merle Haggard's early records on Capitol, paired as 5 twofers. Four are being released for the first time on CD. The albums cover most of the first decade of Haggard's career as a recording artist. They don't cover everything - the first duets record Haggard made with then-wife Bonnie Owens, the great live record "Okie From Muskogee" (which Capitol reissued a few years back), and his Jimmie Rodgers tribute record were also released during this period. So was "A Portrait Of Merle Haggard," oddly omitted from this group.
Be that as it may, what is here documents the birthing and flowering of Haggard's, and his Strangers, version of the Bakersfield sound. And it provides the initial, recurring expressions of thematic concerns that occupied him then and since: heartbreak songs suffused with a singular melancholic resignation, portrayals of the lot of the down-on-their-luck and the downtrodden, and endless ruminations on freedom and the consequences that arise both from its exercise and its loss.
The records are paired chronogically, starting with Haggard's debut, "Strangers," where, yet to find his own voice, the vocal influence of former employer Wynn Stewart and other Haggard idols is palpable, and ending up sevenyears later with "Hag" and "Someday We'll Look Back," which find him in his prime and in full command of his craft.
These 10 albums produced 15 top 10 hits - including 6 number 1's, beginning with 1965's "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive." Scads of songs that weren't hits, but have come to be barroom standards are strewn across them: "You Don't Have Very Far to Go," "Life In Prison," "I Started Loving You Again," "I Can't Hold Myself in Line," to name only a few.
Some choice bonus tracks - highlights include "Jimmie the Kid," Haggard's very first recorded indulgence of his Jimmie Rodgers jones, and a couple of Luke-the-Drifter-style recitations that he manages to execute without the slightest hint of mawkishness - are merely icing on the cake.
Taken as a whole, these albums comprise a huge chunk of classic Haggard, and therefore, of classic country music.