Capitol's deluxe series of Haggard 2-fer reissues takes its second step with Haggard's third ("I'm a Lonesome Fugitive") and fourth ("Branded Man") solo albums, both from 1967. This pair of releases continues to mix the electric twang of Bakersfield with the emotional directness of Johnny Cash, but with songwriting that's both increasingly personal and sophisticated. The doggedness Haggard displays in the face of romantic and personal dissolution adds metaphorical echoes to its autobiographical detail, resulting in songs that connect on first spin and reveal their layers over time.
"I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" was recorded with Haggard's band in transition. Guitarist Roy Nichols had left, and was replaced for these sessions by studio hotshots James Burton and Glen Campbell. Surprisingly, the loss of Nichols' signature licks isn't all that noticeable. Liz Anderson's title track (and Haggard's first #1 single) is the perfect opener, parlaying a fugitive's rootlessness into a metaphor for Haggard's continual run from romantic turmoil. Haggard's a drowning man, and whether it's the nostalgia of "My House of Memories," the loneliness of "Life in Prison," or the bottle of "Drink Up and Be Somebody," he's always struggling to keep from going under.
Haggard's debt to Bakersfield is heard in the Don Rich-styled harmony (provided by Glen Campbell) on "Mixed Up Mess of a Heart," and his favor for Jimmie Rodgers made its first appearance here with "My Rough and Rowdy Ways." Bonus tracks include a tougher pre-Capitol version of "Life in Prison" (recorded for Tally, but unreleased at the time), and a more straight-forward take of "Someone Told My Story" culled from discarded 1966 album sessions.
"Branded Man" continued Haggard's roll. With Roy Nichols returned to the fold, the title track complements "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" by showing that the parolee wears a scarlet mark as damning as the stripes of the escapee. Haggard offers several new originals, including the signature "I Threw Away the Rose," but he also takes on co-writers (Bakersfield legend Red Simpson for "You Don't Have Far to Go," and Bonnie Owens for "Gone Crazy"), and picks up songs from others, including a trio of tunes from Tommy Collins.
Collins' "Don't Get Married" is more hopeful in its longing than Haggard's typical songs of incarceration, and "I Made the Prison Band" actually feels pragmatic and light. Mexicali-styled guitars add a dramatic flair to several tunes, including the prisoner's romantic lament, "My Hands Are Tied." The album's most recognizable cover, the funereal classic "Long Black Limousine," is fine, but surprisingly underwhelming in contrast to Haggard's originals. Extras include early takes of "I Threw Away the Rose" and "Loneliness is Eating Me Alive," each of which lack the delicacy of the final album takes.
"Lonesome Fugitive" is the slightly more satisfying spin, but the beauty of Capitol's reissue series is that you don't have to choose. These two-fers include both original album covers (one on each side of the booklet), color photo reproductions, and newly struck liner notes. Though Haggard fans are likely to have a lot of this material on previous single-CD reissues or box sets, the logical album pairings and remastered 24-bit sound make these sets especially attractive. The only real nits one could pick is the absence of session credits, master numbering and chart positioning, as well as a lack of detail on some of the bonus tracks. These are minor issues for such a stellar series of five-star reissues. [©2006 hyperbolium dot com]