Looking back at the opening salvo of the country great’s vast musical canon
“(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” the song that starts off Merle Haggard’s first album, released 55 years ago in September 1965, and inspired the name of his band, is about romantic betrayal.
The singer would have bet everything that the girl would stick around, but she broke his heart, and now his whole belief system has been shot to hell. What, and who, can he trust in? The song was written by Liz Anderson, and it helped define Haggard at this early point in his career (and was adapted as a title of a Larry McMurtry novel): he would go through this world alone, sometimes pursued by the law (“I Am a Lonesome Fugitive”), sometimes simply rambling along (“Running Kind”), sometimes sitting solo at a bar and ruminating about life’s injustice (“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”). That was his fate, like a country John Garfield in a dusty film noir, and it wasn’t at all surprising that some of his most iconic songs—“Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Life in Prison”—had narrators who were behind bars. He knew firsthand about prison walls. He’d done time, and seen Johnny Cash do a concert at San Quentin.
VIDEO: Johnny Cash performs “San Quentin” at San Quentin 1969
Strangers, his debut on Capitol Records, which had snapped up his contract and master recordings from the independent Tally Records in Bakersfield, California, when he started creating a buzz with “Sing a Sad Song” and a duet with Bonnie Owens, “Just Between the Two of Us,” is a bit of a jumble. Although the sessions took place out west, far from Nashville’s Music Row, nearly half of the tracks were sweetened by fashionable countrypolitan strings, and Haggard’s original songs were generic (“Please Mr. D.J.,” “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can”). As critic David Cantwell writes in The Running Kind, “in contrast to his and his scene’s hardcore mythology, Strangers is more than anything else a pretty swell Nashville Sound album.” But even then, his singing was distinctive—there was a haunted quality to it, and unfussy directness—and he gained notice right away.
In a country world dominated, in 1965, by the smooth male singers like Eddy Arnold, Sonny James, and the late Jim Reeves (whose label, RCA, kept finding new singles to send to country radio), and by the ingeniously quirky Roger Miller, Haggard was something new. There was a little bit of menace in there, linked to an appreciation of his forerunners: Strangers ended with a version of Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You,” the beginning of Haggard paying homage—sometimes at album-length—to artists like Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills. He was a modern traditionalist. At the first Academy of Country Music awards, given out in 1966, he was named Top New Male Vocalist, and he and Bonnie Owens won the award for Top Vocal Duo. His fame, however, didn’t yet go further than the country audience. But in the rock world, musicians began paying attention, and passing their admiration along to their fans.
The Everly Brothers’ Roots came out in 1968. Its first song, after a snippet of a 1952 radio program with The Everly Family, was a cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” and its penultimate track was Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home.” I played that album nearly as much as I listened to The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo, which included Gram Parsons singing lead vocals on Haggard’s “Life in Prison.” So that was how Merle Haggard made his way into my record collection, and early in 1969, I bought a copy of Pride in What I Am by Merle Haggard and The Strangers, their eighth album, which meant that I had a lot of backtracking to do, circling around to Swinging Doors, Sing Me Back Home, all the way in reverse to Strangers. He had a run of a dozen straight top 5 country singles (most #1) from ’65 through ’69, and damned if you can’t program them in sequence and come out with maybe the best country album of the decade: “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive,” “Branded Man,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “Mama Tried,” “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am,” “Working Man Blues,” and a batch of others, ending with “Okie From Muskogee.”
A tricky one, that last chart-topper, because coming out in the post-Woodstock September of 1969, it was a dismissal of the counterculture, the antiwar students, the pot-smoking hippies. Haggard had written a flag-waving defense of Nixon’s “great silent majority” (although Nixon wouldn’t uncork that phrase until that November), in the middle of the Vietnam mess, and how could it be okay to be okay with Haggard who, it seemed, was against everything we were for (e.g., smoking marijuana, making a “party out of lovin’,” all that)? But you know what? It was fine: The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram on lead vocal, did “Sing Me Back Home”; The Grateful Dead took a stab at “Mama Tried” many times (and “Okie” at least once at the Fillmore East, with The Beach Boys); and The Dead’s countrified colleagues The New Riders of the Purple Sage bravely attempted “Working Man Blues,” even though Marmaduke and his band were not remotely in the same league as Merle and his Strangers. Haggard built his soapbox a few crates higher with the follow-up “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” even more confrontational, and you could see it as cynical Agnew–ish red meat if you like, but he got that out of his system and made a Bob Wills tribute album in 1970 that expunged any sins.
When I got the copy of Pride in What I Am that was the building block of my Haggard vinyl collection, it wasn’t only because The Byrds and The Everly Brothers had given me license to cross over into the country lane. I took one look at that cover, Haggard and his crew in some hobo jungle, smoking cigarettes, mean and defiant, Haggard staring into the camera lens, holding a wickedly cool guitar, and that was enough. Plus, the band was called The Strangers. I heard Haggard originals that I still return to, “The Day the Rains Came,” “I’m Bringin’ Home Good News,” and songs by Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers. When “Okie From Muskogee” came out later that year, I was already on the Haggard train, and I really didn’t mind that he wouldn’t like my long and shaggy hair. Anyway, maybe he was kidding, right?
There are a lot of reasons why 21st century country stars like Miranda Lambert and Eric Church, both of whom have done a lot of Haggard’s songs (Church even has a tribute, “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag”), turn to him for inspiration. His songs treat all their characters with dignity and decency; he casts an empathic eye on the hobo looking for a handout in “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am,” and the guy in “Working Man Blues” who has nine kids and has never been on welfare, with no judgment. This is how it is. Everyone takes responsibility, even the wayward son in “Mama Tried” who just couldn’t play it straight, even the murderer spending “Life in Prison.” Haggard knows what it’s like to be a “branded man out in the cold,” who served his time but can’t catch a break. Haggard wasn’t one of country music’s “outlaws,” officially, despite being a contemporary of Waylon and Willie, but that made sense. He wasn’t cut out to be part of a pack. “I guess I grew up a loner,” he sings on “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.’ “I got nobody waiting for me anywhere.” That’s pretty much where Haggard’s story started: “From now on, all my friends are gonna be strangers.”
With that, he polishes off a drink, brushes the dirt from his boots, and heads down another road.