Capitol released four skimpy Merle Haggard theme compilations back in 2001: Cheatin’, Hurtin’, Drinkin’, and (nice twist) Prison. But after listening through the label’s more ambitious current Hag project, five CDs that each contain two of his career-launching 1965 to 1971 albums, I would suggest a less downscale category: Swingin’.
Haggard, born in California in 1937 to Okie parents, furthered Western swing, the jazz-influenced country strand perfected by Bob Wills, by then another Cali transplant. But it goes beyond that. Swing, a collective aesthetic reflecting New Deal democracy, aligned with a broader left populism, dubbed the Cultural Front by scholar Michael Denning, which extended from class-crossing hobos like Woody Guthrie to ethnic entertainers like Frank Sinatra—who later gave “swinger” its 1950s Hollywood meaning. Haggard, loved for turning 21 in prison after being raised in a converted boxcar, swung in all these senses. His command of folksy myth owed as much to pop as circumstance. And his liberated swagger could rival any rocker’s.
The Bakersfield scene he emerged from was kind of a Rat Pack too, linked tightly to Los Angeles and popularized on local television as much as in honky-tonks. Both Haggard’s wife in this period, Bonnie Owens (previously Buck Owens’s wife and a sweetie of Hag producer Fuzzy Owen—swingers!), and his key songwriter, Tommy Collins, had regular roles on Cousin Herb’s Trading Post. Liz Anderson’s “I Am a Lonesome Fugitive,” based on a television show that itself owed a debt to the 1930s film I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, convinced Haggard that his time in jail was nothing to hide. He wrote “Mama Tried” for a movie Dick Clark produced. Dean Martin beat him to “Little Ole Wine Drinker Me” (originated by Robert Mitchum) and made a title cut of his “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.” Dallas Frazier, another key Bakersfield crony, wrote not only the Okie anthem “California Cotton Fields” but the Top 40 goof “Alley Oop.”
None of this invalidates the raw impact of a death row song like “Sing Me Back Home.” But it should make us more careful about reading Haggard as what “Okie From Muskogee” and “Fighting Side of Me,” released during these years on other albums, momentarily made him: an icon of Nixon’s anti-hippie Silent Majority. Nor was he the hardcore alternative to goopy Nashville, not with Glen Campbell singing backup, and other soft stuff. Rather, with an awareness that extended back to Jimmie Rodgers (who in a California session, remember, recorded a blue yodel with Louis Armstrong), and even the blackface twanger Emmett Miller, Haggard helped codify country music as a genre confident about both future and past, a sneakily cosmopolitan statement of the plain but never pure, and certainly not nostalgic. “I think we’re living in the good old days,” he sings on one title track, and his version of Dolly Parton’s “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” came out before hers.
The best early Haggard collection comprises the first two discs of Capitol’s 1996 box, but this artist deserves to have his breakthrough albums in print, and Daniel Cooper, who compiled that box, calls the previously non-CD Pride in What I Am his best ever. I like ’em all. The existentialist Bakersfield honky-tonk of Strangers/Swinging Doors, played with modernist precision. The Strangers, his band, solidifying along with his convict persona on Fugitive and the sublime Branded Man. Sing Me/Bonnie & Clyde identifying with “Hickory Holler’s Tramp” and rooting his standard “I Started Loving You Again” in all the times he didn’t. Mama Tried/Pride the high point of another kind of emboldened late-’60s counterculturalist. And then Hag/Someday We’ll Look Back attempting to move past the “Muskogee” caricature and finally uniting “The Farmer’s Daughter” and “Tulare Dust,” recorded at the same session. “I’ve Done It All,” Haggard sings on Hag. Rummaging through these stuffed CDs, you won’t doubt it. This swinger got around.