Twelve years after they released their first Merle Haggard box, The Untamed Hawk, Bear Family delivered the sequel, Hag: The Studio Recordings 1969-1976. This picks up where The Untamed Hawk left off, which is more of a musical dividing point than it initially seems. If The Untamed Hawk caught Haggard as he was reaching full flight, Hag captures him in his prime, as every single he released reached the Country Top Ten -- often capturing the number one slot -- and as he sometimes crossed over into the pop Top 40. Hag was without a doubt the biggest star in country music but the remarkable thing about his reign at the top was that he never played it safe. During this eight-year span, he recorded few songs as iconic as "Strangers," "Swinging Doors," "The Bottle Let Me Down" or "Mama Tried," but a notable exception was "Okie from Muskogee" and its ornery cousin, "The Fighting Side of Me." Both were reactionary rhetoric in the midst of the Vietnam war, but where the latter was itching for a brawl -- a perfect pairing for its tough, twangy, Bakersfield sound -- "Okie" was gentler in its music and sweetly nostalgic in its tone, romanticizing an America that may never have been there.
As Hag makes clear, "Okie" provides the keystone for the last half of Haggard's Capitol recordings, as his music mellowed and deepened, and he turned toward painting a picture of his ideal America, knowing full well that the good times may already be over. The music feels different than that on Untamed Hawk -- it's not as lean and tense, not as indebted to Buck. It's warmer yet more adventurous and far-ranging, at once referencing the past but sounding progressive, sounding smoother, but never turning pop. Haggard's writing also underwent a subtle evolution, as he developed a narrative eye that had songs like "Tulare Dust" and "The Seashores of Old Mexico" play like short stories. With their spare, vivid lyrical detail, these songs created a mythic image of America that the music matched with its blend of country, folk, blues, and jazz, so thoroughly integrated it was often impossible to discern where the styles began...unless it was on the genre exercises that Hag and the Strangers tore into with thrilling abandon. Merle wrote a bunch of these himself, notably the spectacular Western swing of "Living with the Shades Pulled Down" and "Old Man from the Mountain," songs that illustrated his debt to Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills. It's possible to hear the influence of his idols here but all of Hag's full-length tributes, such as his timeless Wills and Jimmie Rodgers salutes, aren't here -- they, along with the Strangers albums, are bundled on a third Bear Family box, out in 2008 -- but his knack for finding great material is wholly evident, whether he's cutting his old friend Tommy Collins' "Carolyn" or cherry-picking Dolly Parton's "Kentucky Gambler."
Much of this variety can be heard on the many, many individual albums Haggard released during the first half of the '70s -- most of the best of which have been reissued on CD, including great two-fers from both Capitol and BGO -- but hearing it all in this six CD box, the depth and consistency of his music is stunning. Perhaps there are no revelations here aside from the political -- almost immediately after "Okie from Muskogee" became a smash, he began recording songs that backed away from the curmudgeonly conservative bent of that hit, explaining that he's in the divide between the left and right, returning to that sentiment again and again during this stretch at Capitol -- yet there doesn't need to be, as Hag offers the richest, fullest portrait of Merle's America, a world that only grows more alluring with each passing year.