Fans of Country Music Hall of Fame member Merle Haggard are in luck this holiday season. German-based Bear Family Records has just issued "Troubadour" -- a four disc, 111 cut box set that features the entire recorded output of Haggard's five years on MCA Records (1976-1981).
By the middle of the 1970s, the singer had been associated with Capitol Records for well over a decade -- placing twenty-four records at the top of the Billboard charts. However, the artist was beginning to become restless at the label, and put his services on the auction block. MCA won the bidding war, and Haggard took his music to the label, first hitting with 1977's "If We're Not Back In Love By Monday." He went on to chart twenty singles on the label, including fourteen top ten hits.
It was a time of musical experimentation for the singer. He moved to Nashville during this period, and began to record in Music City as well. During his contract with the label, he issued a tribute album to Elvis Presley (His version of "Jailhouse Rock" simply needs to be heard - after all, with his time in San Quentin, he was far more qualified to sing about life behind bars), a Gospel album, and an excellent 1981 concert disc recorded at Anaheim Stadium.
The release continues Bear Family's commitment to issuing Haggard's recordings on CD, being the fourth set in their series. Now, with the release of Troubadour, fans can experience every Haggard recording through the end of his MCA years - going back to his very first hit record, 1963's "Sing A Sad Song." In a 2003 interview, the singer said notching that very first hit was an unforgettable experience. "That was an unbelievable dream come true," he told me at the time. "All my life, I was headed toward something like that I guess, and when it finally happened, it was funny to hear yourself for the first time. It was overwhelming for me, as you might think it would be."
Troubadour includes Haggard collaborations with former wife Leona Williams, as well as Clint Eastwood, with whom the singer topped the chart in 1980 with "Barroom Buddies" (released on Elektra). The collection also features several cuts recorded with Bonnie Owens, with whom Haggard was married to from 1965-1978, and was a prominent part of his live show until the early 2000s. Years later, the singer remembers his first duet partner with sincere emotion. "She was probably most the influential one person in my career," he stated. "She and Fuzzy Owen were together from the beginning. It was just the three of us when I started with Tally Records." Ironically, Bonnie Owens was also a bridesmaid at his October 1978 wedding to Williams!
While maybe not as revered as his work with Capitol or Epic, the music on Troubadour stands on its' own. Tracks like "Ramblin' Fever," "Footlights," and "I Think I'll Just Stay Here And Drink" helped tip off a whole new generation to his greatness. How does that make the singer feel? "Well, it makes you feel awful good, but it makes you question their sanity," he joked. "It's a wonderful feeling, and I am so thankful, and I feel blessed."