My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Merle Haggard: ‘Strangers’ and ‘Swinging Doors And The Bottle Let Me Down’

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).

Strangers, A-
Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down, A

2 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard: ‘Strangers’ and ‘Swinging Doors And The Bottle Let Me Down’

  1. Paul W Dennis October 10, 2011 at 9:00 am

    It is hard to go wrong with any of the secular albums Haggard released on Capitol – they range from merely very good to immortal classics (there are Christmas and religious albums on Capitol, all good, but I don’t judge these albums in the same manner that I judge secular albums, and if you are not a Christian, you may not care for these albums at all)

    STRANGERS is an excellent album, but Haggard was still finding his own personal style. SWINGING DOORS is the album where Haggard truly found his voice.

  2. Ken Johnson October 13, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    Merle’s first single was an early version of “Skid Row” backed with “Singin’ My Heart Out” released on Tally #152. Only a few hundred singles were pressed and with very limited regional airplay that single failed to chart nationally. “Sing A Sad Song” (Tally #155) was his second single and the first to chart. According to Merle he was very glad that his third Tally single “Sam Hill” (#178) performed so poorly. He really did not care much for the song and said if it had been a hit he would have been required to perform it in his concerts for years to follow.

    [Claude King’s recording of “Sam Hill” on the Columbia label charted about a month after Merle’s version had dropped off the charts eventually peaking at #11.]

    Released out of numerical sequence in the late summer of 1964, Tally #181 was Merle’s fourth single, “Just Between The Two Of Us,” a duet with Bonnie Owens. “(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” (Tally #179) released in late 1964 was his fifth and final single for that label.

    I agree that the strings are rather intrusive on those Tally recordings. In the first Merle Haggard Bear Family box set alternate versions of “I’d Trade All Of My Tomorrows” and “Falling For You” without the string overdubs are included. They sound less dated than the released versions. Merle’s voice although quite youthful on these early sessions clearly shows the promise of what was to come.

    Merle was first approached by Capitol Producer Ken Nelson to join the label in September 1963 but out of loyalty to Fuzzy Owen and Lewis Talley he declined Ken’s offer. It turned out for the best because by early 1965 Merle was enjoying his first big Tally hit with “Strangers” and had the leverage to secure a much more lucrative deal with Capitol that included the purchase of all of his Tally master recordings.

    “Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down” is the epitome of the Bakersfield Sound spotlighting Ralph Mooney on steel guitar with Roy Nichols, Phil Baugh or James Burton picking the lead electric guitar. The songs, Merle’s vocals, the arrangements, Bonnie Owens’ harmony vocal – it just doesn’t get better than this. Glen Campbell makes his first Merle Haggard album appearance on several of these tracks playing guitar and providing harmony vocals. One of the most perfect country albums ever recorded. A++++++++++

    By the way at the time this album came out Roy Nichols was no longer a regular member of Merle’s band. Roy left the Strangers in mid-1965 because Merle was not touring regularly and Roy needed consistent work. He moved to Las Vegas and then Bakersfield before returning to the Strangers by early 1967.

    Regarding the bonus tracks on the Capitol/EMI reissue:

    “The Fugitive” is the first version of that song that Merle recorded at Columbia studios in Nashville on March 2, 1966. This was one of Merle’s few Capitol sessions not recorded on the West Coast or produced by Ken Nelson. Marvin Hughes and Fuzzy Owen shared the production duties. The background chorus, piano and harmonica frame the typical Nashville Sound treatment completely lacking the impact and gritty edge that James Burton’s lead guitar provided on the hit version of this song recorded five months later in Hollywood.

    “I Threw Away The Rose” is from the same Nashville session as “The Fugitive.” On this version an intrusive chorus overpowers an otherwise great instrumental arrangement. Merle recorded this song again three months later in Hollywood but was still not satisfied with the results. The final hit version was achieved on November 16, 1966 when an organ was added as a counterpoint to Ralph Mooney’s steel guitar. Merle says that this song is one of his favorite compositions.

    “Jimmie The Kid” is an unreleased track from the Jimmie Rodgers tribute album sessions. It remained in the vaults due to time limitations on the original vinyl 2-album set. Recorded on January 22, 1969 Bear Family first unearthed this track in 1993 for their CD reissue of “Same Train – A Different Time.” A superb Haggard vocal performance.

    “Skid Row” is billed as an alternate take to the released version recorded on August 3, 1966 for the “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive” album. However it doesn’t vary significantly either instrumentally or lyrically from the released version. I’m a proponent of only releasing alternate takes if they offer something substantially different than the released version.

    “When No Flowers Grow,” is a unreleased Tommy Collins song recorded November 6, 1968 as Merle was just beginning the recording sessions for his “A Portrait Of Merle Haggard” album. This is one of my favorite Hag “narration” songs.

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