Wednesday, April 6, 2016

R.I.P. Merle Haggard: I Go Back To The Beginning With Strangers!

The Good: Voice, Some interesting musical storysongs
The Bad: Instrumentally unimaginative, SHORT!, Some very obvious rhymes
The Basics: Merle Haggard's debut album, Strangers is short and unremarkable; unlike the artist's biography and career.

When my wife announced today that Merle Haggard died, I made an unfortunate comment based upon my knowing Haggard only from jokes on television shows and the like (usually directed at fans of Haggard's works and not the artist himself!). My wife was, understandably, upset - in no small part because she is a fan of classic Country - and I felt guilty for saying something stupid. So, after my wife read a small biography of Merle Haggard aloud to me and it sounded like the man was actually a pretty awesome human being who was one of the original powerhouses of outlaw Country, I decided to make Merle Haggard my April Artist Of The Month!

Unfortunately for me, after putting Merle Haggard's debut album Strangers on in high rotation for the day, April is looking pretty bleak for me. Strangers is not bad, but the genre is not really my cup of tea. If Strangers is any indication, Merle Haggard was the king of sad sack Country. Most of the songs on Strangers are musical storysongs or emotion pieces that tell dreadfully sad stories or explore sorrow with the narrator sounding almost completely powerless. And, frankly, Strangers reminds me of the music my grandmother used to listen to and musical appreciation wasn't exactly a point of bonding for us.

With only a dozen tracks, clocking out at 27:50, the biggest detraction to Strangers is that it is short. I've had c.d. singles that are longer than Merle Haggard's debut. That said, Strangers is a decent mix of works by Haggard - he wrote three songs and co-wrote another three - and cover songs. Haggard provides all of the lead vocals and the primary guitars on Strangers. He was not involved in the production of the album.

Instrumentally, Strangers is very much an album dominated by guitar and the vocals. The sound is very much that of a classic Country "one man and a guitar" sound. There is minimal percussion and the tunes are surprisingly indistinct; they follow a classic folk tradition of backing the vocals without being truly memorable on their own. The album is produced to feature Haggard's vocals audibly ahead of the instrumental accompaniment. There are minimal licks of piano to accompany the guitars, most notably right out of the gate on "(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers." But none of the songs are particularly instrumentally rich or well-developed instrumentally.

On the vocal front, Strangers introduces Merle Haggard as a smooth-singing balladeer. He croons clearly from the first lines of "(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers" through the last notes of "Walking The Floor Over You." Haggard has a beautiful voice and the few tracks that provide him with supporting vocals, he still dominates and sings with complere clarity.

Ironically, the song that stood out for me was one that was probably the source of one of the jokes that began my study of the works of Merle Haggard. "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can" is an up-tempo rant about womanizing and taking out frustrations from one bad relationship on all women. With lines like "I'm gonna dedicate my whole life to this one plan / Well if I live and have enough time / I'll get evil with the woman kind / I'm gonna break every heart I can in everyone I find / I'm gonna think of lotta good lies / I'm gonna laugh when a woman cries" ("I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can"), Merle Haggard makes an anthem for misogyny . . . but damn if it doesn't have the catchiest tune on the album!

Many of the songs on Strangers are musical storysongs. They are, sadly, very monotonous for the sadness and feeling of helplessness in the musical protagonist. When Haggard sings "Hello Mr. D.J. wont you play a song for me' / The girl I love just said good-by and I'm blue as I can be / Oh please Mr. D.J. play that song I heard you play / And send it out to someone who broke my heart today" ("Please Mr. D.J.") it does not take long for the listener's empathy to turn into eye rolling. The characters he creates in his songs are not particularly complex; they are sad sacks that are mired in their powerlessness.

Arguably the most clever song on Strangers is "Sam Hill." Like a child getting around swearing, Haggard plays the name "Sam Hill" against the idea of the Southern expletive "Sam Hell!" Not at all cleverly disguised with the narrative "We tried to follow him to his destination / But he had a secret path and soon he was gone / And he had us all a wonderin' what he was doin' / Yeah, wonderin' what in Sam Hill's goin' on" ("Sam Hill"), the song still stands out for sounding like something that might have been controversial when it was played over an A.M. radio back in 1965.

Ultimately, my start of my musical exploration of the works of Merle Haggard begins with a somewhat lackluster debut. Strangers sounds like one man with minimal accompaniment singing in a barn to people dancing closely (save on "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can," where one can envision a barn full of square dancers!). But Haggard seemed to work pretty steadily from 1965 when the album was released until his death today, so what do I know?

The best song is "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can," the low point is "Falling For You."

For other, prior, Artist Of The Month works, please visit my reviews of:
Blackstar - David Bowie
Hits And Rarities - Sheryl Crow
Any Day Now - Joan Baez


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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