It’s been said that during his heyday, 1966-1976, Merle Haggard wrote a good song every day. I’ve only heard that said about one other artist: Stevie Wonder. Indeed, Merle’s albums during this period showcase his talents as a songwriter and performer. When he wasn’t recording his own tunes, his covers of mostly Bakersfield songwriters further displayed his unique ability to get to the heart of a song.
Merle started out playing bass in Wynn Stewart’s band and soon cut some singles for Tally, a small Bakersfield label. After scoring a top 20 country hit with “Sing a Sad Song,” Merle got signed to Capitol and was teamed up with producer Ken Nelson. Ken let Merle use his own band, supplemented with some L.A. studio guys like James Burton, to get his Bakersfield sound. The key components were the hot but sparse sounds of guitarist Roy Nichols, steelers Ralph Mooney and Norm Hamlet, and the stark harmonies of Merle’s then wife, Bonnie Owens. Merle had more hits when he moved on to MCA, Epic, Curb, ANTI- and others, but the hard-biting brilliance of his early Capitol works defines Bakersfield C&W music. There were also five excellent, mostly instrumental albums by Merle’s band, The Strangers, that are worth seeking out if you like slinky West Coast country pickin’.