Merle Haggard recorded the two albums included here -- in reverse order -- during the middle of his tenure with Epic. A Friend in California was issued in 1986 and Out Among the Stars in 1987. The albums preceding and proceeding them were the live Amber Waves of Grain in 1985, and Chill Factor in 1987. It was also about the time of these recordings, however, that his fortunes --professionally and personally -- began to change. Country radio, which up until the 21st century had been the dominant force in the genre, was focusing on the new traditionalists.
The former album in this set included country Top Tens in the mariachi-flavored title track and the stellar original "I Had a Beautiful Time." Other notables on the set were the honky tonk "Texas" and the deeply moving "Cold War with You." Unfortunately, it also contained the novelty number "The Okie from Muskogee's Comin' Home." Haggard wrote or co-wrote all but two tracks on the set. Out Among the Stars featured a number of producers, and though it contains very consistent material, it didn't rack up any Top Tens, though the title track finished just outside the Top 20 as a single. Other notable tracks here include the self-penned "My Life's Been Grand" and "Love Don't Hurt Every Time," as well as a beautiful, swinging Western swing-cum-jazz version of the standard "Pennies from Heaven." Both albums have been given terrific treatments by Great Britain's BGO imprint and are fully remastered with a historical and solidly contextual liner essay by Maurice Hope (even if they are a bit dense and waywardly convoluted).