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Jailbird Country

Merle Haggard was hard way before 50 Cent.


He was a young inmate at San Quentin for a botched drunken burglary when Johnny Cash played there in 1959. Inspired, Hag went headlong into a country music career upon his release. His gritty songs often revolved around drinking, doing time and working for "the man" with an eye for everyday detail that endeared him to fans. But his success is also due to the way he sings, unafraid to allow emotional vulnerability to seep into a genre built on heartland machismo and a shared rural mythology.

Fans of country music should be thrilled that 10 of his early Capitol Records albums have been remastered and released with two albums on each CD (four have never before appeared on disc). While there isn't much musical variety between them, all of the albums now boast terrific sound quality and, taken as a whole, provide an illuminating portrait of a down-to-earth country singer-songwriter of the highest caliber. Some have even called him the Mark Twain of country music. (Look for him on tour with Bob Dylan again this summer.) Below is an abbreviated look at some highlights:

"Strangers/ Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down" (1965, 1966) ***/*****

His first two solo albums show a progression from a performer just trying to belong to an artist asserting his own voice. "Swinging Doors and The Bottle Let Me Down" is one of his best, as Hag sounds like a man on a mission, cutting through the smoke with his twangy Telecaster and making fruit pickers hit the dance floor ("The Girl Turned Ripe"). Also includes the corny, previously unreleased "Where No Flowers Grow" about a child whose mama accidentally ran him over when he hid under her car.

"Lonesome Fugitive/ Branded Man" (both 1967) ****/****

Poised for success, Hag is on a roll here. "Lonesome Fugitive" is a catchy number, possibly inspired by the popular TV show of that period, "The Fugitive," and it provided his first No. 1 single. Backing vocals on this album are memorable. "Branded Man" is more of a prison-themed album, with songs about isolation, regret, and going crazy. Both CDs feature several gorgeous ballads as well as some alternate takes.

"Sing Me Back Home/ The Legend of Bonny & Clyde" (1968) ****/***

The redemption classic, "Sing Me Back Home," is one of Hag's most legendary prison songs. His vocals come confidently to the front on this record, which also features a song about a whore matriarch from Hickory Holler and more domestic drinking numbers ("I'll Leave The Bottle on the Bar"). Also includes an unreleased instrumental track ("News Break") where Hag stalwart Roy Nichols shows off his country guitar playing.

"Bonnie & Clyde" is mostly memorable for including the banjo and the love ballad "Today I Started Loving You" about the singer's rekindled romance with Bonnie Owens (Buck's ex-wife).

"Mama Tried/ Pride in What I Am" (1968, 1969) *****/***

One of Hag's greatest moments, "Mama Tried" shows him at the peak of his lyric writing abilities and finds him moving deeper into his introspective, semiautobiographical mode. Great country guitarist Red Simpson begins to make himself heard here. These two albums feature several unreleased tracks including the sermon throwback, "Looking for my Mind," Hank Cochran's "You're Not Home Yet" and "California on my Mind."

"Hag/ Someday We'll Look Back" (1971) **/***

Now a big-time star, "Hag" is one of his most personal albums although its ballads aren't his most memorable. It features the unreleased jazzy fiddle rocker "I Ain't Got Nobody," which shows Hag's obvious love for musical influences Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell. Similarly, "Someday, We'll Look Back" has a warm, easygoing feel and reveals a mellowing artist who has comfortably come full-circle. S

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