CD Review: Merle Haggard – The Complete ‘60s Capitol Singles (Omnivore, 2013)
As with their collections of singles on Wanda Jackson and George Jones, Ominvore’s anthology of twenty-eight Merle Haggard sides – fourteen A’s and their respective B’s – shows off a perspective not covered by greatest hits collections or original album reissues. In addition to Haggard’s thirteen charting 1960s Capitol A-sides (eight of which topped the charts), the set includes the non-charting “Shade Tree Fix-it-Man.” Haggard wrote all but one of the A-sides (“The Fugitive,” penned by Liz Anderson), and most of the flips, but his first Capitol single was backed by a lush-stringed arrangement of Ralph Mooney’s “Falling for You,” and he later covered Anderson’s sorrowful “This Town’s Not Big Enough.”
Haggard’s B-sides are far from the filler many producers used to force DJ’s onto the plug side; the productions were carefully crafted, and the instrumental backings are often highlighted by Ralph Mooney’s piercing steel and Roy Nichols’ sharply picked electric and resophonic guitars. It’s hard to imagine how DJs kept themselves from flipping “The Legend of Bonnie and Clyde” to play the equally attractive “I Started Loving You Again.” There are a few lighter sides, like “The Girl Turned Ripe,” but the lyrics are most often of afflicted love – relationships bound to end, ending, or receding too slowly in the rear view mirror. Haggard’s jazzier inclinations come out on Hank Cochran’s “Loneliness is Eating Me Alive” and the original “Good Times,” and his love of Jimmie Rodgers is heard in a cover of “California Blues.”
The collection includes singles that are among Haggard’s best and most loved recordings, commencing (with “Swinging Doors”) a run of top-charting singles that ran for nearly twenty-five years. All twenty-eight sides are remastered from the original singles mixes, and in mono for everything but 1969’s “Okie From Muskogee” and it’s flip “If I Had Left it Up to You.” The sound is crisp and leaps from the speakers, and the sixteen-page booklet includes session and release data, photos, ephemera and new liner notes by ace guitarist Deke Dickerson. Those looking for a broader recitation of Haggard’s career should seek out the 4-CD Down Every Road, Bear Family’s box sets [1 2 3 4], or the numerous reissues of his original album (including many two-fers of his Capitol work); but for a great listen to his initial run as a hit-maker, this set is a first-class ticket.