Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down (1966)
Had he been able to combine the best cuts from his multiple releases each year onto single LPs, only the likes of Dylan would’ve been able to match him in terms of consistency and longevity. Unfortunately, like most popular musicians at the time, Haggard didn’t have complete control over what went on his records. Capitol made albums of his singles and whatever other recordings were available at the time. Thus, the immaculate drinking songs, “Swinging Doors” and “The Bottle Let Me Down,” are followed by fillers, “If I Could Be Him” and “No More You And Me.” That’s a bit like chasing Maker’s Mark with Coors, even if Merle's filler is more satisfying than the low-calorie substitute passing for country music these days. Along with the singles, there’s much to recommend the album: the playing of steel guitar maestro, Ralph Mooney; the sing-a-long, self-hating “I Can’t Stand Me”; the small town lechery in "The Girl Turned Ripe"; and what sounds like a Don Gibson hit, “Somebody Else You’ve Known” (my favorite here).
I'm a Lonesome Fugitive (1967)
In addition to destitute relationships, David Alan Coe and Steve Goodman defined the perfect country song as having mama, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk, all of which makes Merle the perfect country artist. By the time of I’m A Lonesome Fugitive, he had first-hand knowledge of all the genre’s defining attributes and began exploring his delinquent years. The Liz and Casey Anderson-penned title track was an allegory about a man’s inability to connect with others, but Merle's background makes the fear of imprisonment more literal. Similarly, he doesn’t have to imagine too much to achieve naturalistic empathy for a condemned murderer in his song, “Life In Prison.” He had a lot of good chauvinistic songs in him, and one of the best appears here, “If You Want To Be My Woman.” His backing band, The Strangers, played the best honky tonk of the 1960s, and it’s on the up-tempo tracks here that they’re let loose: “Drink Up And Be Somebody,” Jimmy Rodger’s “Rough And Rowdy Ways,” and the quintessentially Bakersfield classic, “Mixed Up Mess Of A Heart” (written with Tommy Collins). Overall, the album is one of the singer’s most consistently excellent releases.
Pride in What I Am (1969)
His politics might’ve not been exactly progressive, but he clearly shared some musical interests with the singer-songwriter folkies of the late 1960s. The eponymous single, “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am,” is a brilliant blue-collar reworking of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind,” and much of the second side functions as a soft-focus, golden-hued respite for the lower classes and disenfranchised: “I’m Free,” Red Simpson’s “Somewhere On Skid Row” and "I Think We're Livin' in the Good Old Days" (which Simpson wrote with Dean Holloway). Merle extends his style a bit on two Spanish guitar-inspired tracks, "I Just Want to Look at You One More Time” and “Keep Me From Cryin' Today.” The latter song contains some of the warmest tones Haggard ever uttered, as well as providing new Stranger, steel guitarist Norman Hamlett, an opportunity to prove himself a suitable replacement for Mooney. There’s still enough crying-in-your-beer hard country (e.g., “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line”) to make sure no one’s going to confuse the album with John Denver. It’s just one that his kind would’ve liked to have made had they the life experience. American folk music of the second half of the 20th century didn't get better than this.
A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today (1977)
The recent death of Lefty Frizzell must have caused Merle to do some looking back, because this album is filled with the music of the 30s through the 50s. He and the Strangers give inspired, but classicist, renditions of many old hits, including Hank Williams’ “Moanin’ The Blues,” The Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away From Me,” and O. W. Mayo’s “Blues For Dixie.” Along with covering songs of Frizzell’s time, he pays tribute to his mentor and primary singing inspiration (that lazy note bending was pure Lefty) with a composition for the occasion, “Goodbye, Lefty.” The other dominant strand here is the way these classics connect to Haggard’s signature theme, the alienated working man, whose lot in life is summed up in the title track. This premise becomes more questionable by the end of the record, however. With openly racialist songs and speech being largely a thing of the past by the 1970s (particularly for white commentators and artists), linguistic coding became more prominent, allowing for some Nixonian plausible deniability in the event of a controversial slip-of-the-tongue. Well, the “working man’s poet” was more direct than that, and decoded any ambiguity as to just what “working man” meant with “I’m A White Boy.” It’s a catchy tune, which expresses the far right distraction that it’s the minorities – rather than modern capitalist institutions – keeping the U.S.’s white working class from getting a toe-hold. I don't need art to support my politics, though.
Serving 190 Proof (1979)
In his last great single, “Red Bandanna,” he was as stubborn as ever, but no longer the combative champion of the anachronism heard on “The Fightin’ Side Of Me.” As expressed in record’s most representative single, “My Own Kind Of Hat,” he was learning to accept contemporary culture as it was, and asking the same for his brand of misery in return. Such reflections make up the majority of the album, which is an admirable swan song to his classic years.
Big City (1981)
Along with George Jones’ I Am What I Am, Big City is an exception proving the rule that classic country should’ve stopped when Reagan came into office. It probably goes without saying that it’s best to begin with the earlier recordings for any country artist who began in the 1960s. However, once you’ve explored the first 15 years of Merle's career, this isn’t a bad place to continue. The album begins with four tracks (e.g., the title track and “My Favorite Memory”) comparable to his 1970s work with the Strangers, but becomes a mixed bag afterwards. He probably wasn’t ready to vote Democrat, but there’s a definite change in his regressive anthem, "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)" – turns out the long-hairs were right about Tricky Dick, after all. It’s nigh impossible to do a bad version of Carl Belew and W.S. Stevenson’s “Stop The World (And Let Me Off),” but Merle's otherwise respectable rendition is marred considerably by a Billy Joel-sounding piano placed too front and center in the mix. And a couple of other tracks could’ve done without the Vangelis-smooth saxophone (e.g., “I Always Get Lucky With You”). The rest is padding, but comfortable enough, I suppose.
Maybe I'll get around to surveying Kristofferson's music sometime before the show ...