In early 2006, roughly in time for the 40th anniversary of Merle Haggard's debut album, Capitol Nashville launched an ambitious Haggard catalog project, reissuing ten albums as a series of five two-fers, each adorned with bonus tracks. All these albums had been reissued before, either stateside by Capitol or Koch or in the U.K. by EMI or BGO, but they've never have been given such an excellent treatment as they are here. The albums are paired together in logical, chronological order, the 24-bit digital remastering gives these recordings the best sound they've ever had, the front cover artwork is reproduced for each album on a two-fer, and the liner notes are candid and detailed. Dedicated Hag fans certainly have nearly all this material in their collection -- not only have the albums been on CD, but the bonus tracks have by and large appeared on Bear Family's box Untamed Hawk, which chronicled his early work for Capitol, or showed up on Capitol's own box, Down Every Road -- but they still may be tempted by this series, since these discs not only sound and look terrific, but they're also more listenable than any previous CD incarnation of these classic albums.
And make no mistake, all ten albums featured in Capitol Nashville's first wave of Haggard reissues in February 2006 are classic albums; some may be a little stronger than others, but there's not a weak one in the bunch, and they all stand as some of the finest music of their time. The fourth of these two-fers pairs his last album of 1968, Mama Tried, plus his first from 1969, Pride in What I Am. Mama Tried has a loose prison theme, with about a third of the album sung from the perspective of a prisoner. Chief among these is Haggard's masterpiece "Mama Tried," a semi-autobiographical tribute to a mother who couldn't steer her son right no matter how hard she tried, but covers of Porter Wagoner's "Green Green Grass of Home" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," plus Mel Tillis' "I Could Have Gone Right," also give the album a loose theme, but this is hardly a concept album. The rest of the album contains lean, tough Bakersfield honky tonk like "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me" and an excellent cover of Lefty Frizzell's "Run 'Em Off," plus such bittersweet, folky tunes as a cover of Dolly Parton's "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)." There are also a number of excellent, often overlooked originals like "I'll Always Know," "The Sunny Side of My Life," and "You'll Never Love Me Now," which illustrate the progression in both Haggard's writing and his music, and help make Mama Tried one of his very best records.
As good as Mama Tried is, it's matched by Pride in What I Am. While there are no hits outside of "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" the album gains considerable strength from its diverse material. The rolling, folk-tinged sound epitomized by the title song is balanced by twangy, spare country and bits of hard honky tonk, blues, and cowboy, not to mention the slyly inventive arrangement on his version of Lefty Frizzell's "It Meant Goodbye to Me When You Said Hello to Him." There are also hints of the direction Hag would take in the near future, including a Jimmie Rodgers song (his tribute to the singing brakeman, Same Train, Different Time, would follow next), and the encroaching celebration of a time passed, through his cover of Red Simpson's "I Think We're Livin' in the Good Old Days." There is another Simpson cover in "Somewhere on Skid Row," but what fuels Pride in What I Am is a selection of graceful, low-key minor masterworks from Haggard himself, who explores gentler territory with "The Day the Rains Came" and "I Can't Hold Myself in Line," while kicking up the tempo with the delightful "I'm Bringin' Home Good News" and lying back with the steady-rolling "I Just Want to Look at You One More Time." None of these may be among his most commonly celebrated songs, but they're all small gems that illustrate what a fine songwriter he is. They also help form the core of this subtly adventurous, rich album that may not be among his flashiest, but is another excellent record by one of the most reliable recording artists in country history. And when it's paired with Mama Tried, it makes for a two-fer that very well may be the strongest disc in Capitol Nashville's initial installment of Haggard reissues. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine