(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Recording review: Merle Haggard and the Strangers, Swinging Doors reissue (1966/2013)

Haggard at his honky-tonk best in a classic reissue

"Cui bono?” When a record label dredges old albums out of the vault, it’s pretty obvious who benefits. Merle Haggard’s Swinging Doors (1966) is one of four new vinyl reissues from Capitol Records, and it doesn’t take a cynic to figure that it’s an easy investment on their part. The album marked his first time at the top of the Billboard country album charts and it featured a couple of strong singles. But even while I question the label’s motives, I can appreciate that the record showcases Haggard at his honky-tonk best. His later songs, like the anti-counterculture “Okie From Muskogee”, may have helped define his persona, but these simple, heartfelt offerings stand on the bedrock of classic country music.

The mastering on this release is crystal clear, but I still hear these tunes with the record hiss of my grandmother’s old Magnavox stereo. Her country albums were old and out of step with the rock music I loved, but a few artists like Haggard and Johnny Cash sounded nothing like hick caricatures. Instead, they were men who had lived and dealt with real problems. Listening to “If I Could Be Him” today, I relish in Haggard’s stoic tone at being the short side in a lovers’ triangle. His acceptance is tinged with pain, but sidesteps self-pity:
I know that you could never trade his love for mine
And I know my dreams can never be
Cause no way can wrong be right
But I’d give the world tonight
If I could just be him instead of me 
The brief guitar solo matches his phrasing, almost sighing in the pauses.

He visits this theme again later on the album with “No More You And Me”, summing up his situation with a painful economy: “There’s you and him/ Me and loneliness/ But no more you and me.” This track comes closest to Nashville polish but still avoids the saccharine strings favored by those studios. In fact, Haggard helped mainstream the classic Bakersfield sound, which rejected syrupy Nashville production for a rawer, guitar-centric approach. Swinging Doors is filled with great examples of this sub-genre, from the riff-driven Telecaster on “The Longer You Wait” to the smooth lead trade-offs between the guitar and the steel on the title track. Following in Buck Owens’ footsteps, “I Can’t Stand Me” even toys with rock ‘n’ roll, letting the twangy vocals and double-stop fills provide the country credibility. Swinging Doors also tosses in a novelty tune, “The Girl Turned Ripe”, which features a rollicking tempo and gleeful vocals. Although it probably worked in its time, it hasn’t aged well. The pre-feminist chauvinism is dated and ‘ripe’ has a different connotation these days.

Leading off the second side, “The Bottle Let Me Down”, is probably the most well-known song on the album. “Couldn’t drink enough to keep you off my mind”; these songs are a staple in country music, but this one is a perfect storm. It has a good narrative arc, clever lines and Ralph Mooney’s singing steel guitar. Haggard’s wife, Bonnie Owens, sweetens his rueful tale with understated harmonies that round out the tune.

This range of material, from tales of quiet suffering to the gospel country of “High On A Hilltop”, shows off the versatility of the backing band. That shouldn’t be surprising; the Strangers’ line up serves as a Who’s Who of the great studio and touring players of the day: James Burton, Roy Nichols, Glen Campbell, and Glen Hardin to name a few. If Campbell is the only one you recognize, you’ve heard the others playing with Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, Gram Parsons, John Denver and more.

Capitol may be looking for some easy money on an old album that’s already paid for itself, but it’s a treat to revisit Haggard’s early days. Forget the pop-flavored twang of today’s country music and go back to the source.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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