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Country - Released June 11, 1981 | Epic - Nashville

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Country - Released January 1, 1996 | Capitol Nashville

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Merle Haggard is a rarity: a complex artist whose rich scope can accurately be summarized through singles, but who has far more great material than can be fit on one or two discs. Which, of course, makes him the perfect candidate for a box set, and Capitol released the first comprehensive Hag retrospective in 1996 with the four-disc set Down Every Road. Since Haggard has such a rich, consistent body of his work -- the best of his MCA and Epic periods, two eras that are covered here, hold their own next to his seminal Capitol material -- even four discs leave behind many a great song, yet only those who already own all the albums would argue about omissions, because this offers a generous 100 songs, spanning from his earliest work for Talley in the early '60s to his Epic sides of the late '80s, containing all of his big hits and an expert selection of album tracks, such as "Tulare Dust," "Holding Things Together," and "Living With the Shades Pulled Down," that reveal the depth of his music. This is a body of work with few peers in all of popular music -- the variety of styles and sounds, his ease on freewheeling Western swing and plaintive ballads, his inventive, nuanced originals and expert ear for material, his supple voice and underrated guitar playing, and the support from his brilliant band, the Strangers, all add up to one of the greatest catalogs in 20th century music. And while you can get the basics from Razor & Tie's excellent double-disc set The Lonesome Fugitive, only Down Every Road captures the full extent of his gifts, in a way that is compulsively listenable as well. It's not just the perfect Merle Haggard box set, it's one of the greatest box sets ever released as well, since it truly presents all sides of its subject, while offering nothing but sheer pleasure in terms of mere listening. Plus, this is the only place to find some of these great songs, including the aforementioned trio of album tracks, on CD, which makes it necessary for those who already own the albums. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Country - Released January 1, 2006 | Capitol Nashville

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 fourth of these two-fers pairs his last album of 1968, Mama Tried, plus his first from 1969, Pride in What I Am. Mama Tried has a loose prison theme, with about a third of the album sung from the perspective of a prisoner. Chief among these is Haggard's masterpiece "Mama Tried," a semi-autobiographical tribute to a mother who couldn't steer her son right no matter how hard she tried, but covers of Porter Wagoner's "Green Green Grass of Home" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," plus Mel Tillis' "I Could Have Gone Right," also give the album a loose theme, but this is hardly a concept album. The rest of the album contains lean, tough Bakersfield honky tonk like "Little Ole Wine Drinker Me" and an excellent cover of Lefty Frizzell's "Run 'Em Off," plus such bittersweet, folky tunes as a cover of Dolly Parton's "In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)." There are also a number of excellent, often overlooked originals like "I'll Always Know," "The Sunny Side of My Life," and "You'll Never Love Me Now," which illustrate the progression in both Haggard's writing and his music, and help make Mama Tried one of his very best records. As good as Mama Tried is, it's matched by Pride in What I Am. While there are no hits outside of "I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am" the album gains considerable strength from its diverse material. The rolling, folk-tinged sound epitomized by the title song is balanced by twangy, spare country and bits of hard honky tonk, blues, and cowboy, not to mention the slyly inventive arrangement on his version of Lefty Frizzell's "It Meant Goodbye to Me When You Said Hello to Him." There are also hints of the direction Hag would take in the near future, including a Jimmie Rodgers song (his tribute to the singing brakeman, Same Train, Different Time, would follow next), and the encroaching celebration of a time passed, through his cover of Red Simpson's "I Think We're Livin' in the Good Old Days." There is another Simpson cover in "Somewhere on Skid Row," but what fuels Pride in What I Am is a selection of graceful, low-key minor masterworks from Haggard himself, who explores gentler territory with "The Day the Rains Came" and "I Can't Hold Myself in Line," while kicking up the tempo with the delightful "I'm Bringin' Home Good News" and lying back with the steady-rolling "I Just Want to Look at You One More Time." None of these may be among his most commonly celebrated songs, but they're all small gems that illustrate what a fine songwriter he is. They also help form the core of this subtly adventurous, rich album that may not be among his flashiest, but is another excellent record by one of the most reliable recording artists in country history. And when it's paired with Mama Tried, it makes for a two-fer that very well may be the strongest disc in Capitol Nashville's initial installment of Haggard reissues. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Country - Released June 9, 2015 | Epic - Legacy

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Country - Released January 1, 2002 | Capitol Nashville

For the money, you are not going to find a more definitive Greatest Hits by Merle Haggard. There are 20 cuts on this baby and all of 'em were bona fide hit singles that basically defined the man's well-earned reputation as a great poet of the working class -- not to mention as a country songwriter. Haggard's Epic period may not be here, nor anything from his MCA albums, but it hardly matters because this is one jam-packed set from top to bottom. © Thom Jurek /TiVo
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Country - Released October 10, 2000 | Anti - Epitaph

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Country - Released April 8, 2016 | EMI Music Nashville (ERN)

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Country - Released July 10, 2015 | Epic

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Country - Released January 1, 2006 | Capitol Nashville

In 1998, EMI released I'm a Lonesome Fugitive/Branded Man, which contained two complete albums -- I'm a Lonesome Fugitive (1967, originally released on Capitol) and Branded Man (1967, originally released on Capitol) -- by Merle Haggard on one compact disc. © Jason Birchmeier /TiVo
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Country - Released April 29, 1982 | Epic - Nashville

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Country - Released January 1, 2007 | EMI Gold

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Country - Released January 1, 2006 | Capitol Nashville

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Country - Released December 3, 2001 | Epic

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So what happens when you put two country music legends on the same record? Apparently Epic and Columbia were big on finding out in the early '80s. This set of Merle Haggard and George Jones is only one of a series -- Willie Nelson and Haggard did two--the frist netted a hit with Townes Van Zandt's "Poncho and Lefty"-Ray Price, Leon Russell, Jones, and on and on. As to the album at hand, it's a satisfying, pleasant listen if not a mind-blowing one. Both men were experiencing resurgences in their careers, particularly Haggard, who was on a roll of fine records, and Jones had come off the enormous success I Am What I Am. Most of the tracks here are somewhat melancholy such as the title track by Nelson, "After I Sing My Songs" by Haggard's wife at the time, and Merle's "I Think I've Found a Way," which are on the sad side, good for sipping whiskey on a cloudy afternoon. The pair's voices blend seamlessly and compliment each other in almost symbiotic fashion. The only problem is, Hag and Possum are a bit too courteous around one another. It's obvious they didn't set out to make a honky tonk record, but they did. Billy Sherrill in the producer's chair was swinging for the radio fences, and he got close, but even he stayed the hell out of the way most of the time here and let the music take its course, and this pair just treated each other deferentially. So side one is pure downer music, and side two picks up the tempo and the grit level. "C.C. Waterback," a Haggard tune written just for this session, is a pure drinking masterpiece with the two trying to keep from laughing their asses off. It's got Haggard's version of Bob Wills Western swing complete with a Dixieland trumpet solo. There's also the Vern Gosdin and Max Barnes honky tonk classic anthem "Must've Been Drunk." And the album closes with a novelty track that can be listened to over and over, a good-natured self-deprecating song by Jones called "No Show Jones" due to his Sly Stone rep for not making his gigs. It's hilarious and sad at the same time, referencing all the country legends with their talents and reputations, and here, in good-time fashion, Jones disappears from the song too. This is a fine album for enjoyment among friends -- especially if you're not looking for revelation. © Thom Jurek /TiVo
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Country - Released January 1, 1980 | Merle Haggard PS

"Memories and drinks don't mix too well/Jukebox records don't play those wedding bells." So begins "Misery and Gin," the opening track on Merle Haggard's strongest -- and second from last -- outing for MCA. While this album is deservedly known for its four classic drinking songs -- the aforementioned cut, "Back to the Barrooms," "I Don't Want to Sober Up Tonight," and "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" -- what Back to the Barrooms is really about is the wreckage caused by broken amorous relationships and boozy escape as the only way to cope. Produced by Jimmy Bowen with his progressive country style, he understood Haggard's wish to utilize horns and strings in ways not necessarily in concert with traditional country music -- à la Bob Wills -- yet to write and perform in grand honky tonk fashion. Other than Haggard's relationship with Lewis Talley at Columbia, the Bowen-Hag collaboration was his most successful of the 1970s. Haggard wrote or co-wrote the majority of the album, and, whether intentionally or not, it coincides with the beginnings of his troubles with his then-wife, songwriter Leona Williams (whose co-write with Haggard, "Can't Break the Habit," appears here) as chronicled in his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. The swinging barroom stomp of "Make-Up and Faded Blue Jeans" reveals the kind of trouble a man can get into when he loses his focus and his inherent distrust in relationships based on "100 reasons for lookin' away one more time." The contradictions in love are revealed in how we love those who can hurt us the most in Curly Putman's "Ever Changing Woman," with its gorgeous low-end piano lines and Travis-style fingerpicked guitars. Like his best theme records, Haggard reveals all sides of the conflict and its paradoxical nature, showing that nobody ever wins when love ends. The drinking songs here also document the beginning of Haggard's beginning long descent into chronic substance abuse, something he didn't pull out of until the 1990s. Even "Leonard," the seeming oddball track on the record, deals with the meteoric rise to country music fame and fortune to the ruin and redemption of a close friend (Tommy Collins); it is fraught with the loss of relationships and resultant substance abuse as if it were an equation. This is underlined on the album's closer, "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," which both Wills would have and Ernest Tubb did love. Hardcore honky tonk and swinging Western jazz meet head-on in a tale of romantic loss and alcoholic oblivion: "I could be holdin' you tonight/I could quit doin' wrong and start doin' right/But you don't care about what I think/I think I'll just stay here and drink." This album features Haggard's most consistent, inspiring performance since he left Capitol, and was the beginning of a creative renaissance, though the personal toll it took on him would prove considerable. © Thom Jurek /TiVo
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Country - Released February 21, 2006 | Capitol Nashville

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. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Country - Released January 1, 2014 | Capitol Records Nashville

Merle Haggard's third album, Swinging Doors / The Bottle Let Me Down, was assembled from a variety of singles and session like its two predecessors, but it contained a stronger overall selection of material than either album. In addition to the two masterpieces from which the album took its name, the record included a terrific version of Tommy Collins' "High On A Hilltop," and plus excellent songs like "The Girl Turned Ripe," "If I Could Be Him," and "Someone Else You've Known." There's a few weak tracks, but Haggard and his band are in fine form, making the filler enjoyable. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Country - Released September 8, 1987 | Merle Haggard PS

The Way I Am shares many of the same qualities of its predecessor (Serving 190 Proof) and successor (Back to the Barrooms) albums. That is, it's pretty much a straight-ahead honky tonk album that pays little mind to the contemporary trends of the day. Where it differs from Serving 190 Proof or Back to the Barrooms is that the performances are a little inconsistent, as is the material. Still, Hag is a reliable performer in that he always delivers a couple of gems. Here, it's in the form of the title track, Floyd Tillman's "It Makes No Difference Now," and three Ernest Tubb covers ("Take Me Back and Try Me One More Time," "I'll Always Be Glad to Take You Back," and "It's Been So Long, Darlin'"). It's enough to make it worth a listen for hardcore Hag followers, but all others may find it a little bit too uneven. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Country - Released January 22, 1985 | Epic

As the title implies, His Epic Hits: First Eleven covers the first 11 hits Merle Haggard had on Epic Records, including "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck Was Still Silver)," "Pancho & Lefty," "Reasons to Quit," "That's the Way Love Goes," "My Favorite Memory," "What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My LIfe)," and "You Take Me for Granted." Since most of his early Epic albums were uneven, His Epic Hits is especially useful, gathering his best material onto one disc. It should be supplemented by Greatest Hits of the '80s, which covers his mid-'80s hits for Epic, as well as a few fine cuts that didn't make this collection. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Country - Released October 4, 2011 | Vanguard Records

Working in Tennessee, Merle Haggard's second album for Vanguard, plays a little slower and softer than 2010’s I Am What I Am, a record where Hag gently dwelled on his mortality. There are times where his age crosses his mind -- particularly on “Sometimes I Dream,” where he casually lists off things that aren’t likely to pass his way again -- but generally, he’s ready to “Laugh It Off” as he gripes about what’s playing on the radio, smokes a little dope, and enjoys playing a little bit of blues as he looks back to the past, even cutting a couple of old favorites (“Cocaine Blues,” “Jackson”) and a new version of “Working Man Blues.” Hag never rushes things, never turns up the volume, his western swing now bearing a closer resemblance to the gentlemanly amiability of Hank Thompson instead of the wild, woolly Bob Wills. He’s proceeding at the pace of a 74-year-old legend with nothing to prove, yet he’s not resting on his laurels, he’s just doing what he’s always done: singing songs so expertly his virtuosity almost goes unnoticed. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo
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Country - Released January 1, 1969 | CMCapNash (N91)

The hit single title-tune didn't make it onto an LP for three years, but purchasers of this disc were getting something better, a good live album, the first of three concerts released by Haggard and the Strangers in less than four years. Cut in Muskogee, Oklahoma (where Haggard is given the key to the city and an award certifying him an "honorary Okie"), the first side is devoted to classics such as "Mama Tried," "Swinging Doors," "Working Man Blues," and "Sing Me Back Home" -- stuck amid these originals is a sizzling rendition of Jimmie Rodgers' "No Hard Times," and "In the Arms of Love," co-authored by Buck Owens and Gene Price (Haggard's bass player, who gets a featured vocal). Haggard opens side two with his song about the mythical Depression-era persona "Hobo Bill" (the Jimmie Rodgers-influenced "Hobo Bill's Last Ride"), premieres one new song ("Billy Overcame His Size"), and in the second half gives the Strangers a brief featured spot ("Blue Rock"), sandwiched between the Haggard anthems "White Line Fever" and a smooth rendition of "Okie From Muskogee." The Bakersfield sound is very well represented, with crisp rhythms and lean leads (by Roy Nichols), and Haggard is in excellent voice. © Bruce Eder & Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo

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Merle Haggard in the magazine