Mama Tried/Pride In What I Am – Merle Haggard and the Strangers
Capitol Records 09463-44792-2-1
The remastered release of these two albums should remind any music lover that the country rock stampede was well under way by the time that Bob Dylan released John Wesley Harding. Few realized at the timeeven more so than his May 1966 motorcycle accidentthat this Dylan mix of Old Testament spiritualism and healing moonshine welcomed a permanent break from his thin wild mercury sound. Even fewer recognized its kin.
Haggard and The Strangers are on the road this year with Dylan and his latest collection of musicians on his Neverending Tour. The circle does remain unbroken, eh? The first album in the new set, 1968’s Mama Tried, is a fine collection of Haggard honky tonk that was released the same year as Dylans wounded post-motorpsycho masterpiece. The title track, covered by Bob Weir (and a subsequent Deadhead favorite) is smooth and grand; The Sunny Side of My Life offers an ode to good and bad times when your gal leaves the scene; Youll Never Love Me Now, a slow waltz with an eye to country blues after love is once again long gone gone and the previously unreleased Lookin For My Mind a snaky lilting cry for peace of mind after another bout of broken heart blitzkrieg.
The album also features numerous cover versions, which Haggard and his crack Strangers handle with class and chutzpah. Green Green Grass of Home (also covered by the Dead) is a tall glass of whiskey and lemonade on a warm summer eve. Little Ole Wine Drinker Me switches gears into California wine country. In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)" has the band whittlin Dolly Partons tune down to its fine lyrical essence while Folsom Prison Blues is slammed into the ground with equal parts Johnny Cash, Hells Angels and a modern country rock sound with its stinging words of wit that were only too true for the old prisoner himself, M. Haggard #45200, San Quentin, Class of 1960.
Pride In What I Am is the 1969 companion to Mama Tried and continues Haggards lyrical attempts at grasping the truth behind outlaws, lost love, hard times, murky blues and the battle with the bottle that soaked the country scene during this era and beyond. A word of caution to the listener — songs this simple and pure and true are really difficult to write, especially when linked with melodies that sound fresh nearly 40 years down the highway. I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am sets the tone right out of the gate as Haggard lays down the law with his creed. The Days The Rain Came wrings more dusty sweat out of love betrayed as Haggard hums along to an occasional piano, steel guitar and background vocal while a shuffling drum beat keeps time. The Jimmie Rodgers classic California Blues details the dreams of the West being the Best and the thought that the wanderlust can always just keep travelin to get away from the pain and sorrow of yesterday. The previously unreleased White Line Fever is equal parts road horror tale and a symbolic slow burn on cocaine abuse and hard living. What the song details echoes the theme of both albums — somehow, the stubborn Haggard shakes the dust off, stands tall and continues to walk down that dark road into the great unknown.