Haggard’s debut single was a cover of Bakersfield star Wynn Stewart’s ‘Sing A Sad Song’ which was released on independent West Coast label Tally. Although it crept into the top 20 on Billboard, Merle sounds as if he is trying too hard to copy Stewart vocally, breaking into an uncomfortable falsetto, and there is a very heavy handed string arrangement.
He followed that up with a song penned by another Bakersfield boy, Tommy Collins’s perky novelty story song ‘Sam Hill’, which is certainly memorable, but now sounds very dated, particularly the backing vocals, and it performed less well than its predecessor. On the flip side was the pained ballad ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’, which Haggard wrote with fellow Bakersfield singer-songwriter Red Simpson. This is an excellent song, addressed to although the string section is overdone again.
The third and last single for Tally, the rueful ‘(All Of My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers’, was the one which really kickstarted his career. The first of many genuine classics Haggard was to make hits, it is unusual in that it was not one of his own songs, but was written by fellow Californian Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn), to whom he had been introduced by Bonnie Owens. A Bakersfield bar room take on lost love, it was his first top 10 hit single and gave him the name of his backing band, the Strangers. Even though a competing version by the more established Roy Drusky may have cut into sales, it was a big enough success that it persuaded major label Capitol to buy out his Tally contract. Six Tally sides were packaged with newly recorded material in the same vein, produced by Ken Nelson, for Haggard’s debut album in 1965.
The malicious ‘I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can’ (a Haggard original) was his first single actually released on Capitol, although it failed to break into the top 40 on Billboard. It is an energetic, personality-infused response to “get even with womankind” by breaking the hearts of every girl he meets.
Typically, country albums in the 60s featured one or two singles, a lot of filler, and covers of other artists’ hits. Haggard was much more album-oriented, even at this early stage, writing five of the album’s dozen tracks, and there are other songs which could have been hit singles given the exposure.
I really like ‘Please Mr DJ’, a disconsolate plea for the radio to play a specific song for “someone who broke my heart today”. ‘If I Had Left It Up To You’ is another very good song with the protagonist regretting his earlier fighting for a doomed relationship, as if he had not done so,
It’d all be over now except the crying
I’d be used to spending all my nights alone
A couple of tracks are still filler, with overdone string-laden productions. The heartbreak ballad ‘You Don’t Even Try’ was written with Haggard’s friend (and Bonnie Owens’s then boyfriend) Fuzzy Owen, co-owner of Tally, while steel guitarist Ralph Mooney’s romantic and sophisticated sounding ‘Falling For You’ is not a patch on ‘Crazy Arms’.
A cover of Ernest Tubb’s classic ‘Walking The Floor Over You’ is taken at a disconcertingly brisk, almost cheerful pace, which doesn’t quite work. Rounding out the set are rather better versions of another fine Liz Anderson song, the depressed ‘The Worst Is Yet To Come’, and Jenny Lou Carson’s sad but pretty sounding lament for lost love ‘I’d Trade All Of My Tomorrows’.
The West Coast based Academy of Country Music recognized this bright new star by naming him Best New Male Vocalist for 1965 and also gave him the Best Vocal Duo award for his duet album with Bonnie Owens. A year later he had advanced to the title of Best Male Vocalist. Haggard was definitely on the right track with his debut, but had not quite found his distinctive voice yet.
He was to do that the following year with his second solo (and first #1) album, named after its two classic hits. He marked himself out as a singer-songwriter of great talent by writing all but two of the songs, almost all majoring on broken hearts and honky tonks. The album is actually credited to Merle Haggard and the Strangers, his band, anchored by lead guitarist Roy Nichols and most notable for Ralph Mooney’s steel guitar, which is outstanding throughout the album.
The enjoyable up-tempo ‘Shade Tree Fix-it Man’ was the album’s first single, but failed to chart. All that was to change when ‘Swinging Doors’ burst upon the country music world and became Haggard’s first top 5 hit. A classic honky tonk lament about a man who has given up everything for love, and found himself washed up with nothing to show for it but a bar room life, it is still regarded as one of his greatest songs and performances. ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’, another quintessential Haggard song about drinking failing to soothe a broken heart, peaked at # 3 on Billboard. These two tracks deserve a place in any country music collection, and form the centerpiece of an outstanding album.
The lesser known material is also high quality, although Tommy Collins’s lonesome classic ‘High On A Hilltop’ is the only one quite as good as the hits. This finds the religious protagonist brooding over the wife who has abandoned him she is dancing in a dingy bar room). Liz Anderson’s ‘This Town’s Not Big Enough’, the other outside song, is a decent but not very memorable mid-tempo number about, yes, surviving a breakup. The punning novelty ‘The Girl Turned Ripe’ is about a series of teenage girls falling in love and running off with(guitar) pickers, and the only track I don’t really like.
‘If I Could Be Him’ is a great song about a love triangle; not a cheating song but a situation where the protagonist pines hopelessly after his best friend’s girl:
It’s wrong to want you like I do
No way can wrong be right
But I’d give the world tonight
If I could just be him holding you
‘The Longer You Wait’ is like a prequel to the previous album’s ‘If I Had Left It Up To you’, with the protagonist anticipating future heartbreak and urging the girl to leave now, acknowledging bleakly,
We both know that you never loved me
I lied to myself from the start
‘I’ll Look Over You’ is a resigned and desperate declaration of love for a thrill-seeking woman who wants more than her faithful lover can offer. ‘No More You And Me’ is a sad ballad facing the fact that a woman is about to leave the protagonist for another man. The jaunty sounding ‘Someone Else You’ve Known’ has a one-time Lothario surprised to be stung by love and heartbreak himself.
The lively up-tempo ‘I Can’t Stand Me’ takes the response to heartbreak to extremes, with Merle declaring suicidal intentions set to an incongruously catchy Bakersfield rhythm.
The album was Haggard’s first #1 album, and really marks his ascent to stardom.
The 2for1 reissue which combines these two albums on one CD is excellent value for money. It additionally contains a number of bonus tracks: early (demo?) versions of the classics ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’ (great), ‘I Threw Away the Rose’ (not quite as good as the later version) and ‘Skid Row’ (overproduced with unrecognizable vocals), and previously unreleased covers of Jimmie Rodgers’ Jimmie The Kid’ (an affectionate tribute) and Tommy Collins’ gloomy part-narrated Luke the Drifter style story song ‘When No Flowers Grow’ (definitely dated but good of its kind).
Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down, A