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 first two-fer in the series pairs Merle's first two solo albums, 1965's Strangers and 1966's Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down (a duet album with Bonnie Owens, Just Between the Two of Us, appeared between the two records and is not part of the reissue series). Strangers shows all the hallmarks of being a debut: it's largely comprised of previously released singles and finds Haggard in debt to his influences. It also is heavy on covers, including the singles "(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers," "Sam Hill," and "Sing a Sad Song," the latter two penned by Hag heroes Tommy Collins and Wynn Stewart, respectively. These are only relative weaknesses, though, since the album is a thoroughly entertaining debut, highlighted by Merle's original "I'm Gonna Break Every Heart I Can" and the immortal title track. If Hag was merely finding his voice on Strangers, he comes into his own on Swinging Doors and the Bottle Let Me Down. By this album, he had assembled his backing band, the Strangers, and developed his signature lean, tough Bakersfield sound, epitomized by the two singles in the title of the album. Those are hardly the only bright spots on the album, of course. Not only does this album find Haggard finding his sound as a bandleader, it finds him coming into his own as a songwriter, penning ten of the 12 songs on the album, and while not all of the tunes are quite at the level of the title tracks, such songs as the lazy, heartbroken "No More You and Me," swaggering "Someone Else You've Known," skipping Buck Owens knock-off "The Girl Turn Ripe," barroom ballad "If I Could Be Him," and funny, rollicking "Shade Tree (Fix-It Man)" illustrate the depth and range of Haggard's writing and suggest the richness of the music that was just around the corner.