Merle Haggard & the Strangers

A Portrait of Merle Haggard

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Anyone who doubts that Merle Haggard was one of the very finest country acts of the 1960s should give a listen to this album, which captured Hag when his gifts as a singer and songwriter were at their peak -- and before the success of "Okie from Muskogee" encouraged his grandstanding tendencies (and got him unfairly branded as a reactionary). Three of Haggard's finest songs appear on this set -- "Silver Wings," "Hungry Eyes," and "Workin' Man's Blues" -- and most country artists would be happy to cut three tunes this strong during the course of their career, let alone as part of one of six albums Hag would release in 1969. While those three songs are inarguably the album's highlight, the rest of the set is strong as well, including a terrific cover of the George Jones classic "She Thinks I Still Care," the tough honky tonk weepers "Who Do I Know in Dallas" and " I Die Ten Thousand Times a Day," and the brass-infused "Montego Bay." The production and arrangements are admirably low-key and to the point, and Haggard's vocals are deeply emotive without overplaying his hand. Quite simply, this is as good as Nashville product got in 1969, and a first-rank example of what Merle Haggard did so well.

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