Most of us are content to simply remember the past. Some of us are trying to forget it entirely. Merle Haggard and his music, however, seem at times to still live in it. If Merle runs from anything , it seems to be the future, or at best the present. The past in Merle’s music provides respite and comfort, and even the hard times are something to be savored and sung about. Be wary of swinging doors and bottles of booze, the women of modern day conveniences, these things will let you down. Hard lessons learned, but if these were morality plays no one would grin, and nod their heads in agreement of past sins remembered. There’s a wry joy in his song The Bottle Let Me Down. It’s no lie, the bottle does let Merle down and her memory does come back around, but there’s a pure honky tonk revelry in the music that belies the lyrics.
The sessions, which took place over the first half of 1966 for Capital Records, was set up like a who’s who of small country giants. Guitars were handled by Merle of course, but also by, now get this, James Burton, Phil Baugh, Jack Collier and Glen Campbell. Roy Nichols also shows up on guitar and wouldn’t leave Merle’s side until his passing in 2001. Ralph Mooney was playing steel for Merle at the time his tasty licks keep the party going through most of the tune. I must mention quickly that Peaches Price, the not so famous Bakersfield drummer (see pic below), is slapping the skins for Merle, much like she did for Tommy Collins and Wynn Stewart. Finally, it was the hand of god in the production booth, Ken Nelson. Nelson defined country music for Capital records during his tenure. He produced over the years, Hank Thompson, Faron Young, Jean Shepard, Merle Travis, Freddie Hart, The Louvin Brothers, Buck Owens, Glen Campbell and Gene Vincent. That’s, seriously, to name just a few.
But the song, it’s a honky tonk celebration if I’ve ever heard one. Here’s one where everyone joins in on the chorus and its far more Gary Glitter than Anita Kerr Singers. Merle might be surrounded by Strangers, but at least for a time the booze and barroom haze and broken hearts are enough. Sure, the bottle let him down this time, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water just yet.