MERLE HAGGARD AND THE STRANGERS Mama Tried (Capitol)
A country outlaw comparable to - and in fact inspired by, during his regular San Quentin prison gigs - Johnny Cash, "Mama Tried" is Haggard's seventh album, originally released in 1968. The semi-autobiographical title track is probably most famous outside the genre for being covered by the Grateful Dead, although Merle's original pares it back to the wire, wood and bone: the acid's in his harsh, cutting voice - an instrument with a raspy edge like a rusted blade - not the music. (And check the comically clichéd cover image of a grey-haired mother, brow creased with worry.) Following it with "Green Green Grass Of Home" posits the record as a not-quite-concept album, almost a country equivalent of Frank Sinatra's misery records, solidified by "I Could Have Gone Right", a song it's not difficult to imagine The Byrds prepping for "Sweetheart Of The Rodeo" alongside Merle's own "Life In Prison". The anti-nostalgic account of grinding childhood poverty, "In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)" stands in stark contrast the glossy, glamorous image its author, Dolly Parton, has acquired over subsequent decades, and if "Folsom Prison Blues" is practically a carbon copy of the Man In Black's contemporaneous version, right down to the well-deep reverb on Roy Nichols' electric guitar, at least we can presume that it's a sincere tribute. Not an album to everybody's taste, of course, but one that left me considering that, having invented jazz, blues and country and western, America doesn't have too shabby a cultural legacy.
Part of the "From The Capitol Vaults" series, this 180 gram vinyl reissue claims "audiophile quality", although with scant evidence of attention to detail to back up the claim (this being the programme that actually managed to substitute a track from an entirely different album on a recent Frank Sinatra pressing) maybe "adequate quality" would be nearer the mark. The "faithfully restored" packaging is nice, though, with era-appropriate lime green Capitol labels, reassurances that "this stereo record can be played on modern monophonic equipment safely and with excellent results" and EMI's old "The greatest recording organisation in the world" logo, which appears increasingly Ozymandian with the passing of time.