Along with Buck Owens – with whom he shared a musical history and a wife – Merle Haggard (1937-2016) defined The Bakersfield Sound of country music: authentic, raw, rooted in honky-tonks. But unlike the Texas-born and Arizona-raised Owens, Haggard was actually born in Bakersfield and raised just across the river from that California town. “Hag,” as he preferred to be known, rocketed to superstardom thanks to “Okie from Muskogee,” his controversial 1969 song that was either a scathing indictment of the younger generation or of the smalltown, heartland folk criticizing them. (Hag himself seemed to relish the different interpretations.) Ace has recently trained the spotlight on Merle Haggard the songwriter with a stellar entry in its Songwriter Series.
Holding Things Together: The Merle Haggard Songbook features an array of performers in various genres, all paying homage to his quintessential songs built around themes familiar to any country fan: the dual temptations of women and drink, the outlaw life (Hag actually spent three years in San Quentin for burglary), solitude, the love of a mother. All 24 of these eclectic tracks (out of some 150 written by Haggard during his lifetime) are imbued with the piercing honesty on which Haggard built his formidable reputation.
The collection, curated by Tony Rounce, opens with one of the all-time great drinking songs. Merle’s first Capitol hit “Swinging Doors” (“I’ve got swinging doors, a jukebox and a bar stool/And my new home has a flashing neon sign/Stop by and see me any time you want to/’Cause I’m always here at home ’til closing time”) is included in Jerry Lee Lewis’ stripped-down 1968 recording which didn’t see release until 1986. Naturally, The Killer cut loose tickling the ivories in barroom piano style. Emmylou Harris delivers a touching rendition of another of Haggard’s booze-drenched classics, the oft-covered “(Tonight) The Bottle Let Me Down,” a top five Capitol hit for him.
Fellow country legends like Dolly Parton (“Life’s Like Poetry”), Tammy Wynette (“The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde”), and scion Hank Williams Jr. (“I’d Rather Be Gone”) all cottoned to Haggard’s songs, but one of the great pleasures of this set is hearing how well his compositions adapted to other genres. Some might be surprised at the inclusion of the brassy, happily loping “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am” from laid-back crooner Dean Martin, but Dino and Hag actually formed a mutual admiration society; they even duetted in the 1980s when Martin returned to the studio after a self-imposed retirement.
Rockers have naturally been long attracted to Haggard’s music and outlaw persona. The Everly Brothers cut two of his songs including “Sing Me Back Home” on their 1968 album Roots, their tight harmonies melding beautifully with the contemplative ballad. Early country-rock pioneers like The Byrds, The International Submarine Band, and The Flying Burrito Brothers are all represented with, respectively, faithful versions of the unflinching murder ballad “Life in Prison,” “I Must Be Somebody Else You’ve Known,” and truck-driving anthem “White Line Fever.” Grateful Dead’s live “Mama Tried” captured the song’s spirit admirably; the Dead’s Bay Area pal Country Joe McDonald tapped the good-time jug band sound for Haggard’s prescient commentary on the environment, “Rainbow Stew,” in 2012. Southern rock heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd brought their loose style to “Honky Tonk Night Time Man,” clearly identifying with the milieu of the lyrics.
Haggard’s songs also translated to the R&B idiom. Raucous modern-day soul man Barrence Whitfield brought a classic country vibe to his 1994 take on “Irma Jackson,” a sad chronicle of an ill-fated interracial love affair between the singer and the titular woman who he’ll love ’til he dies. (The song is as applicable to the African-American Whitfield as to the Caucasian Haggard.) Bettye Swann brought a touch of the blues to “Just Because You Can’t Be Mine” cut for Hag’s Capitol home.
Later generations of rockers would also discover the riches of his songbook, including The Knitters – the loose group formed by members of X, The Blasters, and The Red Devils. Their “Silver Wings” is a faithful reading of Haggard’s sad, lonely paean to a lover who’s leaving; Dave Alvin of that group is also heard with his sensitive but commanding take on the elegiac “Kern River” about a friend lost to the mighty river. Hag’s own recording of the almost unbearably sad “Holding Things Together,” sung from the perspective of a single father, further shows the depth of his songwriting.
No collection of Haggard-penned tunes would be complete without his two arguably most famous songs. “Okie from Muskogee” is heard in Roy Rogers’ 1970 rendition. In the beloved singing cowboy’s interpretation, the lyrics are undoubtedly devoid of any irony. Of more than 100 versions, Wynn Stewart’s sublime, understated “Today I Started Loving You Again” was selected for this set; Stewart, a.k.a. “The Father of Bakersfield Country,” was the singer who gave Hag, newly freed from prison, a major break as a bassist.
Indeed, the songs of Merle Haggard held things together for the artist over a remarkable, long career that saw him chart over 100 C&W hits. Ace’s fine tribute is a long-overdue tribute to his versatility as a songwriter. A full-color 20-page booklet features track-by-track liner notes from Tony Rounce, and Nick Robbins has tastefully remastered all tracks. (Every track save one is in stereo.) Holding Things Together: The Merle Haggard Songbook is available now at the links below.
- Swinging Doors – Jerry Lee Lewis (rec. 1968, rel. Bear Family BFX 15210, 1986) (Mono)
- Okie from Muskogee – Roy Rogers (Capitol LP ST-594, 1970)
- Irma Jackson – Barrence Whitfield (Hightone HCD 8058, 1994)
- Just Because You Can’t Be Mine – Bettye Swann (Capitol single 2723/LP ST-270, 1970)
- Silver Wings – The Knitters (Slash LP 25310-1, 1985)
- The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde – Tammy Wynette (Epic LP BN 26392, 1968)
- White Line Fever – The Flying Burrito Bros. (A&M single 1277/LP SP 4295, 1971)
- Kern River – Dave Alvin (Yep Roc LP YEP 2118, 2006)
- Honky Tonk Night Time Man – Lynyrd Skynyrd (MCA LP MCA 3029, 1977)
- Life in Prison – The Byrds (Columbia LP CS 9670, 1968)
- Holding Things Together – Merle Haggard and The Strangers (Capitol single 3900/LP ST-11331, 1974)
- Everybody’s Had the Blues – Brenda Lee (MCA LP MCA 373, 1973)
- Mama Tried – Grateful Dead (Warner Bros. LP 2WS 1935, 1971)
- Farmer’s Daughter – Chop Taylor with Ghost Train (Columbia single 3-10446/LP KC 34345, 1976)
- I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am – Dean Martin (Reprise single 0841/LP RS 6338, 1969)
- Life’s Like Poetry – Dolly Parton (RCA Victor LP APL1 1665, 1976)
- Today I Started Loving You Again – Wynn Stewart (Capitol LP ST-453, 1970)
- Sing Me Back Home – The Everly Brothers (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts LP WS 1752, 1968)
- I Can’t Hold Myself in Line – Elvin Bishop (Capricorn LP CPN 0134, 1974)
- Rainbow Stew – Country Joe McDonald (Rag Baby CD GLO-042, 2012)
- Living with the Shades Pulled Down – George Thorogood and The Destroyers (EMI CD E2 56220, 1977)
- I’d Rather Be Gone – Hank Williams, Jr. (MGM single 14077, 1969)
- I Must Be Somebody Else You’ve Known – The International Submarine Band (LHI single 1217/LP LHS-12001, 1968)
- The Bottle Let Me Down – Emmylou Harris (Reprise LP MS 2213, 1975)