In her study of hard country music, Wrong’s What I Do Best, Barbara Ching offers a spot-on summation of the genre’s usual subject matter: “broken homes, decrepit houses, binge drinking, dead-end jobs, and criminal records.” Merle Haggard tapped into his experiences in these realms, and beyond, for a series of singles that have served as the foundation for a career spanning five decades and counting. These records make up Omnivore’s outstanding The Complete ‘60s Capitol Singles collection of all of Haggard’s singles for the Capitol label. These 28 A and B-sides, cut and released from 1965-69, are the songs that transformed a shiftless jailbird into the Hag, one of country music’s most influential figures.
The hard country songwriters tapped into the contemporary, blue collar equivalent of the same realities the blues articulated and found an audience eager to be recognized, working class Joe Sixpacks who associated strongly with what this music articulated on their behalf. Hag, and the rest of the hard country artists, were adopted as spokespeople for this disenchanted demographic, self-identified salt of the Earth types who were confused, alienated, and being left behind by the rapidly evolving pop/youth culture of the ’60s. Songs like “Working Man Blues,” one of Haggard’s signature tunes, described a life of simple values, honest labor, and the sanctity of family that, if not an ideal, sounded close enough to reality for this massive, disenfranchised audience to embrace it as theirs.
With Haggard’s simple imagery of neon signs and well-worn barstools, songs like “Someone Told My Story” and “Swinging Doors” made the beer-swilling loser’s regular tavern feel as though it could be the setting for a honky-tonk epic, too. The “Shade Tree Fix-It-Man” was country’s prefiguring of the rap convention to come, the kind of macho boast of extreme ability (“I’m a Jack of all trades”) and self-sufficiency (“Don’t need any helpin’ hand”) that the core male audience believed could have been written to describe them. “The Longer You Wait” spoke common truths about love’s lingering pain and prolonged misery, universal experiences expressed in an everyday manner the listeners could relate to.
Haggard’s ’60s music was also the stuff of legend, real and imagined. The poetry of repentance gave “Mama Tried” the feeling of familiarity, even among those inexperienced with hard living and turning 21 in prison. “Workin’ Man Blues” topped the country charts by glorifying the nose-to-the-grindstone ethic that provides for a wife and nine kids without ever relying on welfare. (Nine kids? Evidently, Hag wasn’t the kind to slack when workin’ at home, either!)
For one of hard country’s hard cases, Complete Singles reveals a surprisingly sensitive side to Haggard. (Also revealing other facets of his personality, his second autobiography, My House of Memories, depicts him as shockingly petty and vindictive.) A number of the best, most significant early hits included here show Haggard’s are highly effective heartbreakers that manage to be touching without resorting to the kind of mawkishness that typifies too much country music.
“Falling For You,” a Buck and Bonnie Owens co-write with Owens’ ace guitarist Don Rich, begins with mariachi-influenced strings and a subtle cha-cha feel before settling into a proto-countrypolitan arrangement and Merle’s mellowest vocal style. “You Don’t Have Very Far To Go” is an exemplary country heartbreak song, the model for thousand that followed, using a common phrase to create a memorable hook. Simple phrases are likewise strung together in “I Started Loving You Again,” one of Haggard and co-writer Bonnie Owens’ most accomplished and influential compositions, creating a profoundly effective expression of romantic longing. Contrary to what David Allen Coe says, the perfect country song doesn’t need mama, prison, or gettin’ drunk. It doesn’t need a thing this song doesn’t have.
Songs like “I Started…” bring to light an unexpected dichotomy between some of Haggard’s solo credits, his collaborations, and the contributions of outside songwriters. Considering the Stone Age sensibilities put forward by some of these lyrics, to say nothing of the unenlightened values much of the hard country music represented, it’s flat-out amazing that several others of the Complete Singles, including “The Fugitive” (Haggard’s first #1 single and one of the songs most closely associated with his outlaw image) were also co-written by a woman, Liz Anderson, mother of country star, Lynn. Another Liz Anderson co-written song, “This Town’s Not Big Enough,” gains a new dimension when heard as a woman’s perspective on the consequences of a breakup. Haggard sings of being so disturbed by her memory that permeates every corner of their town, he has to leave, seeking a place where the “windows have no faces” peering out to witness his pain, incongruous actions and observations for the macho sexist of “The Girl Turned Ripe,” for instance.
In addition to the repugnant metaphor of the girl who “turned ripe” the day the pickers came, there are other rough patches in this collection, including the banjo-driven, redundant hokum of “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde,” and none rougher than Haggard’s final Capitol A-side, “Okie From Muskogee.” One of the most notably divisive songs of the ’60s, Haggard has offered contradictory appraisals of “Okie,” from indicating that it accurately reflected his opinion of the country’s political and cultural divide, to claiming that it was a spoof. As the CD booklet states, “’Okie…’ set the tone for much of which was to follow,” as Haggard continued pandering to his audience with another redneck anthem in “The Fighting Side Of Me.”
This Omnivore collection captures far more hits than misses, though, with crisp mono remastering from original analog sources. Highly recommended to any fan of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Dwight Yoakam, Sweethearts-era Byrds, or anyone who thinks the stuff on the country music charts today actually is.Powered by Sidelines