Of the late singer Merle Haggard’s 16 No. 1 albums (including a compilation album), Swinging Doors was his first. Today, the album turns 52 since its release in 1966. In honor of the late country music legend, here’s a brief retreat to his debut chart-topper album. Based on his discography, Swinging Doors was Haggard’s first recording with The Strangers. Interestingly, the album carries a story of both failure and success. It’s a story worth reading and brings one to generalize that the way the Branded Man’s career took off has set the pattern of his failure-and-success journey.
To be specific, Haggard and The Strangers started their initial recording with difficulties and eventually reaping disappointing results. It’s just normal for any artist recording for the first time to go through such toil. But as they say, “those who never quit are most likely the ones who win in life.” Fortunately, the “Sing Me Back Home” singer and his band stuck to that principle and it did bring them somewhere.
The Making of Swinging Doors
Merle Haggard traveled to Nashville in April 1966 for a particular purpose. It’s for him to record his first-ever collaboration project with The Strangers. As it was their first work together, Haggard and the band had some troubles leading to poor results. Haggard tried to recall this in the American Masters episode about his life.
“Seemed like there was a period where I was paddlin’ around in the water tryin’ to do something and it just wouldn’t work.”
He added that he even had a hard time thinking what the real problems were and coming up with solutions for them. Call it magical or miraculous, things started to fall into their right places for Haggard all of a sudden.
“… a lot of hair pullin’ tryin’ to figure out what I was doing wrong and what I could do right in order to make it work. And all of a sudden it just started workin’.”
But in my opinion, it’s Haggard’s persistence in mastering his craft that made things turn for the better for him. Not only had their recordings went well but also the resulting album earned him and The Strangers their first top country album.
The Album and Its Tracks
Consisting of 12 tracks, most of which were written by Haggard, Swinging Doors’ recording focused heavily on the band’s musical instruments. Thanks to Roy Nichols’ Telecaster and Ralph Mooney’s steel guitar which helped smoothen the recording’s rough edges. On top of that, Bonnie Owens provided the harmony vocals turning the demo into a perfect masterpiece. The album’s title track, “Swinging Doors,” was a Top 5 hit and it was this success that inspired Haggard to focus on what worked best for his songs. Accordingly, in late June 1996, Haggard was found back in the studio cutting “The Bottle Let Me Down.” On that recording, Haggard enlisted the participation of James Burton and Glen Campbell for the tunes’ refinement. All his hard work paid off and with the single reaching No. 3, he had his biggest hit at that time.
Released on this day in 1966, Swinging Doors went on to top the Billboard country albums chart. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic reviewed the album favorably. On his review, he specifically noted:
“In addition to the two masterpieces from which the album took its name, the record included a terrific version of Tommy Collins’ “High On A Hilltop,” and plus excellent songs like “The Girl Turned Ripe,” “If I Could Be Him,” and “Someone Else You’ve Known.” [There are] a few weak tracks, but Haggard and his band are in fine form, making the filler enjoyable.”
Listen to Haggard’s recording of “The Bottle Let Me Down” below.
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