Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Merle Haggard and the Strangers

  • Okie from Muskogee [Capitol, 1970] B
  • The Fightin' Side of Me [Capitol, 1970] C+
  • A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World [Capitol, 1970] B+
  • Hag [Capitol, 1971] C+
  • Someday We'll Look Back [Capitol, 1971] B+
  • Let Me Tell You About a Song [Capitol, 1972] B+
  • I Love Dixie Blues [Capitol, 1973] C
  • It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad) [Capitol, 1973] B
  • If We Make It Through December [Capitol, 1974] B
  • A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today [Capitol, 1977] A-
  • Songs I'll Always Sing [Capitol, 1977] A-
  • The Way It Was in '51 [Capitol, 1978] A-
  • Eleven Winners [Capitol, 1978] B

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Okie from Muskogee [Capitol, 1970]
Despite some slack performances, this album--recorded live during Haggard's first appearance in the city he made famous and vice versa, and the only LP to date to include any version of the title song--is a passable sampler. The wild crowd and predictable fooforaw--he gets an official Okie pin and the key to the city--give it documentary value. But The Best of Merle Haggard is a lot more representative of a great iconoclast who's keeping it under wraps these days. Tell us, Merle, just which college dean do you respect? B

The Fightin' Side of Me [Capitol, 1970]
This is turning into a cartoon--once again a jingoistic anthem sells a live album. Don't hippie-haters worry that hippies might have more in common with Merle than they do? After all, he does boast about "living off the fat of our great land." C+

A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World [Capitol, 1970]
An album of Bob Wills songs, featuring genuine Wills sidemen with Johnny Gimble (as well as Haggard himself) on fiddle? Now that's the Merle I trust. His uncountrypolitan formal sense has always gone along with a reverence for history, and his subtle, surprisingly tranquil, yet passionate singing style--all that yodel and straining head voice--was made for Wills's pop-jazz-country amalgam. B+

Hag [Capitol, 1971]
Four country hits on Haggard's first straight studio album in a year and a half, but only the simple goodbye song "I Can't Be Myself" escapes bathos. "The Farmer's Daughter," "I'm a Good Loser," and "I've Done It All" have an acceptably archetypal ring. Forget the rest--Hag already has. C+

Someday We'll Look Back [Capitol, 1971]
An honest two days' work, but don't let the keynote tune fool you into expecting a lot of class-conscious reminiscences. "California Cottonfields" and "Tulare Dust" are welcome, but this has its share of romantic pap, and the nostalgia of the title bubbles too close to the surface. Surprise: "Big Time Annie's Square," Hag's peace with the hippies. B+

Let Me Tell You About a Song [Capitol, 1972]
I object in principle to music-with-commentary albums, and Haggard is hardly as forthcoming with his "inner thoughts" as the notes promise. But despite its mawkish moments--especially Tommy Collins's dead-mommy song--the material defines Haggard's sensibility in a winning way, and since not one of the songs is great in itself I guess the commentary must do it. For controversy, there's interracial love. B+

I Love Dixie Blues [Capitol, 1973]
The care Haggard put into his Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills tributes was palpable; this live-in-New Orleans-with-horns affair is slovenly. The two great moments are covers--"Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" and "Lovesick Blues," both originated by the legendary (blackface?) yodeler Emmett Miller. The lousy moments include current hits, overstated polyphony, and (how did we stand the wait?) a third live version of "Okie From Muskogee," this one a failed singalong. C

It's Not Love (But It's Not Bad) [Capitol, 1973]
Merle hasn't played the poor boy in quite some time, but as he's turned into a legend he's all too often turned to gimmicky pseudo-concepts. This mainstream country album--his first since Hag--does more justice to its title than many of his more pretentious efforts. Nothing special, just marriage and its travails, but play it twice and you'll remember most of it. B

If We Make It Through December [Capitol, 1974]
Last time it was good to hear him go contemporary again. This time one of the two contemporary standouts sounds mysteriously like Bob Wills. The Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman remakes come across fresh and clean. The Ink Spots remake doesn't. B

A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere Today [Capitol, 1977]
The album opens with the title song, about a Good Redneck, a class-conscious guy who pays his child support and wonders skeptically why he doesn't get ahead. It closes with "I'm a White Boy," about a Bad Redneck, a race-conscious guy who's too proud for welfare but would settle for a rich woman and/or an easy job. These are powerful pieces whether you like them or not, rendered with passionate sympathy and a touch of distance--his strongest in years. The "filler" includes covers from old standbys Williams and Wills and new favorites Delmore and Wells and an envoi to Lefty Frizzell as well as a gospel song and a running song and a sentimental standard that works (for once). Not a bad cut, and Capitol assembled it from the vaults after Haggard bolted for MCA. Why then did Hag himself put out such crap for three years? A-

Songs I'll Always Sing [Capitol, 1977]
God damn it--I could put together four discs of Hag that would never go below A minus, but Capitol hasn't offered me the job, so this two-disc mishmash will have to do. Dreck among the gems (Haggard has small knack for heart songs), muddled chronologically and thematically (a real waste with an artist so prolific and varied), and the fifth album to include a live version of "Okie From Muskogee." But at least it offers all four of his great outside-the-law songs, one per side. And it's budget-priced. A-

The Way It Was in '51 [Capitol, 1978]
Because Haggard's singing gained resonance and flexibility as his songwriting flattened out, this factitious compilation cum concept album, one side devoted to Hank and one to Lefty, works better than his self-designed Bob Wills tribute. A-

Eleven Winners [Capitol, 1978]
Continuing Capitol's reclamation/exploitation of his last five or six years with the label, this compiles his best originals from the period. Pretty conventional--when he does try to add a little something (I like the play on "grind" in the trucking song), it's rarely quite enough. B