Merle Haggard’s toughest song may be his 1968 country hit “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.” Despite the title, it’s not about a working man — he sings in the voice of a hobo loner, drifting from place to place. “I keep thumbin’ through the phone books/Lookin’ for my daddy’s name in every town,” Hag sings — the way he picks up that line, cuts himself deep on it and sets it back down is the essence of his hard-boiled vocal genius. This could be the guy Bob Dylan sang about in “Tangled Up in Blue,” except he doesn’t even have a redheaded woman in his past — just empty roads. It’s the song they played at the funeral of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant, and you can still hear why.
Haggard’s work is spread around more than a few labels, but The Original Outlaw is the most comprehensive Haggard compilation yet. The three CDs range from his hell-raising Sixties days (“Mama Tried,” “Sing Me Back Home”) through his Eighties tomfoolery (“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink”) up to his 2005 anti-Bush protest, “America First.” It unerringly plucks the best of his later hits — “I’m Always on a Mountain When I Fall,” “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room.” Any Hag fanatic can note missing faves (“Living With the Shades Pulled Down”), but the sheer range here is amazing.
Hag’s Bakersfield country dust is still a revelatory sound: sweet acoustic guitar up top, mean drums below. His songs are full of God’s lonely men: crooks, fugitives, bar-brawling drunks, death-row convicts requesting one last song on their way to the electric chair. He doesn’t sing as much about husbands — no great country singer has ever had less interest in his own love life, mainly because his only true love is the road. Hag knows it will never love him back — you can hear that in his voice from the beginning, the way he feels the cold wind hit him in “Branded Man.” But on The Original Outlaw, it’s a lifelong passion.