Graded on a Curve: Merle Haggard, Swinging Doors

Merle Haggard is a man who needs no introduction. His music, however, is best served by a thoughtful entry-point that reflects his emergence as one of country music’s truly singular figures, so the fact that his amazing third LP Swinging Doors has been given a fresh 180gm pressing is stupendous news. As the first LP he recorded with his estimable backing band the Strangers, it’s not the only Haggard record you’ll need, but it does establish the beginnings of a very fruitful period and essays with precision the attributes that make him such a valuable artist.

Along with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard was a principal architect of the Bakersfield Sound, a strain of country music rooted in the ‘50s that broke big in the following decade, providing an alternative to the Nashville Sound that was dominating the C&W charts during the era. Calling it the original Alt-Country will make many folks wince, but it’s not that far off the mark.

For in eschewing the syrupy string sections, overly polite backing singers and general pop slickness of the Nashville Sound, a production-driven style that later morphed into a movement called Countrypolitan, the Bakersfield musicians were retaining the glorious essence of Honky-Tonk (a form derived from the work of Jimmie Rodgers, Western Swing-man Bob Wills, and Hank Williams) that prevailed on the C&W charts during the ‘50s.

Classic Honky-Tonk was exemplified by such major cats as Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Hank Locklin, Lefty Frizzell, and a little later on George Jones, and it was a band music that flourished on the stages of the very clubs that named it. While the early years of the Bakersfield Sound overlap that of Honky-Tonk, by the ‘60s and its national breakout through Owens and Haggard, it was appropriately assessed as a reaction against the pop sensibilities of a city that in 1960 was designated as the USA’s second biggest record producing center.

If the Nashville Sound developed into Countrypolitan, the Bakersfield thing also continued to thrive, influencing contemporaneous work from important artists like Johnny Paycheck and setting the stage for the Outlaw movement of the ‘70s. It also touched both The Beatles and The Stones and was a crucial ingredient in the creation of both country-rock and the stuff we now indeed categorize as Alt-Country.

And while the majority of the music Nashville produced in the ‘60s and ‘70s now sounds stilted and dated, the records made under the Bakersfield banner continue to provide much pleasure to this very day. So it’s no surprise that some detailed attention is getting paid to Haggard in 2013. Last month Omnivore Recordings issued The Complete ‘60s Capitol Singles on CD, a rather stupendous document that gathers the As and Bs of an insanely productive half-decade in terms both commercial and purely artistic.

But it’s even better news to find Haggard’s killer third album Swinging Doors getting the reissue treatment on 180gm vinyl. Along with the still available Mama Tried (also on 180gm), it offers the chance to hear the man as his initial audience did, back when he was establishing his reputation as a fantastic singer and instrumentalist, but before he’d become one of the true cornerstones in the country field.

Growing into such a lauded figure had a troublesome side effect on his in-print discography. For years, it was quite a pain in the ass to obtain copies of his early work in its original form. In their place was a major stream of career-spanning compilations sitting alongside a string of later albums that while not without interest, were also not the work that made his name.

Yes, some of the ‘60s LPs eventually returned to print, often doubled up on compact disc, but it was a long time coming. Scouring second hand stores in the interim was often an exercise in futility. Folks held on to these records for a reason; there was basically no direct upgrade available. And for this writer, finding a copy of Merle’s debut Strangers in a Salvation Army for fifty cents wasn’t really luck, for the record had been battered so badly as to be essentially unplayable.

Even though he scored four #1 albums in the decade’s second half, Merle Haggard’s value for Capitol Records in the ‘60s was foremost as a singles artist. His full-length records mainly added session cuts to a selection of his hits, and that’s part of the reason Haggard’s third LP Swinging Doors is often incorrectly listed with the undeniably attractive title Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down.

But one listen to the LP impresses with its overall lack of filler, helping it to stand apart from the phenomenon of inconsistent ‘60s albums waxed from acts noted for their conquering of the singles charts. If Haggard was savvy to the needs of radio, the jukebox, and the audience that wanted nothing more than the quick fix of a flawless 45, he also possessed a sure hand both as a songwriter and as an interpreter of other’s material.

Along with his truly splendid voice, these talents were enough to assure Haggard a high level of success. However, the element that continues to make him so artistically relevant is his dedication to that specific sound. While the whole Bakersfield experience gets so wound up in its rep as a reaction against pop excess, it’s important to clarify that the work of Owens and Haggard was in no way retrograde. Instead it was the byproduct of practical ingenuity.

Like Honky-Tonk, it was music made by a functioning band; Owens had his Buckaroos and Haggard had his Strangers, and their bread and butter was earned, at least initially, on the live stage. In the translation to the recording studio, very little was changed. And the results really cook. You could even say they rock.

Haggard has a legion of fans that would champion him mainly for his assured phrasing and obviously the sound of that magnificent voice, but a smaller number of folks persist in digging upon the early records he made in tandem with the crack-band that was the original Strangers, and Swinging Doors is the impressive beginning to this cycle.

While ‘65’s Strangers is a fine first album, all the ingredients weren’t there yet, and the record also culls his earliest sides for the Tally label with later recordings funded by Capitol in need of filling out the LP. His second disc Just Between the Two of Us is a duet record shared with Bonnie Owens (Buck’s first wife and Merle’s second) that ain’t at all bad but is mainly of interest to hardcore Haggard fans.

But the way Ralph Mooney’s pedal steel tangles with Phil Baugh’s lead guitar in the first few seconds of Swinging Doors’ opening title track, the pair locating the same earthy, bluesy quality that’s at the heart of Western Swing, makes it emphatically clear that something special is happening. Just as important is the unwavering simplicity of drummer Helen “Peaches” Price. The unfussy drive of her playing might not seem like a particularly praiseworthy achievement, but please recall that countless musical endeavors have been ravaged by the rampaging needs of the ego before they even got off the ground.

And Haggard’s vocal might be the main attraction even at this early point, but what sells it is his engagement with his band. Yes, he’s the star, but more importantly he’s the leader of an ensemble. The interaction between vocalist and group is just as vital here as it is in rhythm and blues or rock ‘n’ roll; what they all share is their energy.

Price’s drumming on “If I Could Be Him” is simply exquisite, the feeling intensified by how the style has basically vanished from the contemporary country music scene. Find me somebody kicking a bass drum this sweetly right now and I’ll eat Werner Herzog’s shoe. Not far behind Price’s contribution is James Burton’s killer work on the Dobro.

And if it’s beginning to seem like this appreciation of Haggard is going be totally wrapped up in form and not content, I’ll add that “If I Could Be Him” holds lyrics of uncommon emotional richness, though without the man’s brilliant delivery their power would be significantly muted.

For those seeking cold hard evidence of Haggard’s impact on the early country-rock phenomenon, please see “The Longer You Wait.” The way the pedal steel is distinctly blended with the guitars (one of which is played by none other than Glen Campbell, a name some might recognize through his work with the group Sagittarius), and how they integrate with the smooth heft of Merle’s vocal makes it easy to imagine Mike Nesmith sitting near his Hi-Fi and breaking into a deep epiphany as he fondles that green wool hat.

The use of piano on “I’ll Look Over You” adds further urbane atmosphere, underscoring that Haggard and cohorts weren’t averse to a modern sensibility, but rather merely chose to avoid the saccharine. And “I Can’t Stand Me” is a straight-up rocker, with Price killing it on the traps while Baugh and Mooney both execute some fiery solos.

Side one’s closer “The Girl Turned Ripe” is more than a bit reminiscent of Buck Owens’ contemporaneous work, and is quite good for the similarity. The second side opens with the album’s other hit single “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and like “Swinging Doors” it features the backing vocals of Bonnie Owens and Billy Mize. The sound of Haggard and the Strangers was nothing if not full-bodied, utilizing some of the same techniques as the Nashville Sound but to obviously different ends.

You see, it’s not a bit difficult to imagine Owen Bradley erasing most of the instrumentation from the relatively minimal “No More You and Me,” perhaps keeping the piano and replacing the rest with those inevitable swells of strings. In so doing, there would be no disconnect between Haggard’s voice and this sort of production, for the man’s pipes are definitely sleek. But there would a lack of friction and heat, his overall effectiveness greatly reduced.

Of the rest of the cuts, “Somebody Else You’ve Known” hits a crisp mid-tempo with more superb playing from Baugh, a fine cover of Tommy Collins’ “High on a Hilltop” takes a nice turn for the gospel, and “This Town’s Not Big Enough” brings another strong showing from Burton.

But closer “Shade Tree (Fix-It Man)” finds Haggard slipping the fumes of some gussied-up rockabilly into the stew and the gesture provides Swinging Doors with one of its many highlights. It serves as terrific coda to a major effort, a record that many call Merle’s first masterpiece. I’m not arguing.

This LP is the sound of one of the finest bands in the history of country music firing on all cylinders as led by one of the genre’s greatest singer-songwriters. It’s true that as the ‘60s progressed his records got even better, but Swinging Doors is the first great one. For a full picture of C&W music’s classic years, it’s an essential listen.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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