One would be hard pressed to find any duds within Merle Haggard’s Capitol catalog; during his dozen or so years with the label he and Ken Nelson created an impressive body of work. While Haggard continued to produce worthwhile music in his post-Capitol career, it’s generally acknowledged that his output was more hit or miss after he departed the label. Serving 190 Proof, produced by Fuzzy Owen and released in 1979 on MCA, is one of his less interesting efforts, despite producing two Top 5 hits.
Haggard wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s eleven tracks, including the two singles “Red Bandana” and “My Own Kind Of Hat”, both of which peaked at #4. “Red Bandana” is about a pair of free spirits, 30 years into their relationship, and now she apparently wants to settle down, but Merle states emphatically that “I can’t change and live the way you want me to.” “My Own Kind Of Hat” is a whimsical ditty about marching to the beat of a different drummer. The catchy lyrics have fun with some words that contain double meanings, as well as a few double entendres:
There’s two kinds of brothers and two kinds of lovers
And two kinds of babies to hold
There’s two kinds of cherries and two kinds of fairies
And two kinds of mothers, I’m told, and told …
The rest of the album takes a more serious tone. The opening track “Footlights” is one of the most introspective songs Haggard ever recorded. It talks about the loneliness and isolation of life on the road, having to put on a brave face and smile for the sake of the fans, and — despite tremendous professional success — having to little to celebrate in his personal life. “Got Lonely Too Early (This Morning)” is a little more upbeat, despite the serious lyrics. The melody is somewhat similar to “C.C. Waterback”, which Merle would record a few years later with George Jones, but “Got Lonely” lacks the energy of that later track. It plods along and somehow doesn’t quite work.
The album’s best track is one that Haggard didn’t write. “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, penned by the always reliable Sanger D. Shafer, finds Merle in therapy to overcome a drinking problem. Had the song been written a few years later, one could easily imagine Keith Whitley singing it.
As the album progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that Haggard was in the midst of a midlife crisis of sorts. He talks about loneliness and advancing age in “Footlights”, a drinking problem in “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, and in “Driftwood” he is drifting through life without purpose. He finds that he can’t run away from his problems in “I Can’t Get Away” and in Red Lane’s “I Must Have Done Something Bad”, he’s been betrayed by a wife or girlfriend and thinks that it must be retribution for something he did in the past. He turns nostalgic with “Sing A Family Song” and holds out some hope that things will get better in the album’s closing track “Roses In The Winter”, which despite, being a very pretty song, doesn’t seem to be a good fit for Merle.
Whether it was his state of mind or the absence of Ken Nelson, Serving 190 Proof is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Most of the songs are good, but as a collection it seems a bit lifeless. By most other artists’ standard, Serving 190 Proof would be considered stellar work, but while it is by no means a bad album, it fails to reach the high bar set by Haggard’s earlier work on Capitol. While it is not his best work, it is still worth a listen, and is easy to find on CD and as a digital download.