My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Monthly Archives: October 2011

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘In My Next Life’

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Album Review – Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson – ‘Pancho and Lefty’

Released in January 1983, Pancho and Lefty was one of the biggest selling albums of that year. Commenter Ken Johnson provided some details on the recording of this album, which can be read here. The album featured two singles, “Reason To Quit” and the title track. Pancho and Lefty was nominated for Album of the Year by the CMA, but lost to Alabama’s The Closer You Get.

Lead single “Reason To Quit,” a mid-tempo honky-tonk shuffle, was solely written by Haggard. It peaked just outside the top 5 and featured Haggard and Nelson trading off on vocals. The song tells the story of two young men who are “rolling down the fast lane” where the reason to quit “gets bigger each day.”

Looking back now, it’s funny to hear Haggard and Nelson facing their demons in song. I especially enjoy the line where Willie sings about not being able to afford his habit, like that ever stopped him from his marijuana addiction. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the song works, but the vocal performances weren’t very engaging. They sound fine when singing a part but their voices don’t seem to blend that well together here.

The same can’t be said for the title track, which ranks among my favorite country songs of all time. Originally recorded by its writer Townes Van Zandt in the early 1970s and then Emmylou Harris on her Luxury Liner album, it’s this duet between Nelson and Haggard where this song finally received its due. I love the expertly crafted story and the guitar riffs that open this song. The gentle and easy-going production helps this song age better over time than most of this album.

I grew up with both my grandfather and parents loving “Pancho and Lefty” so I got really turned on to it as a kid. While the interplay by Nelson and Haggard is missing here as Nelson takes the lead, that choice in crafting this a non-traditional duet never bothered me. I’ve always enjoyed when Haggard kicks in on the third verse, and the music video only furthered the legendary status of this song. I’ve been an unabashed fan for as long as I can recall and my love and appreciation of this song has only deepened overtime.

I can’t say the same for the rest of this album. From 2011 ears, this almost thirty-year-old album hasn’t aged well which is a shame considering the talent that created it. While the production is kept understated and traditional in nature, it doesn’t keep songs like “It’s my Lazy Day” and “My Mary” from coming off a bit cheesy. The former suffers from an attempt to come off light and breezy while the latter sounds foolish coming from Haggard. The way he gushes about Mary like a fetish object underscores Haggard’s talent for honest and hard-hitting country music.

Thankfully, “Half A Man” and “No Reason To Quit” see the album turning around and Haggard restoring the faith that he hadn’t resorted to keeping his career alive through material a notch below sub-par. The Nelson pinned “Half A Man” is the result of a bad relationship in which the man is now only “half a man” that “you made of me.” It’s a strong tale about the pieces left when relationships are over and features a nicely understated production of piano, drums, guitar, and flourishes of fiddle. And “No Reason To Quit,” a better song than the single “Reason to Quit,” finds Haggard lamenting about his drinking habits saying he could quit tomorrow but has no reason too. The blunt honesty that trademarked his best work is on full display here and the production matches that of “Half A Man” – the perfect amount of softness to allow Haggard ample ability to convey the lyrics, which were composed by Dean Holloway, who co-wrote “Big City” with him.

“Still Water Runs The Deepest” acts as a change of pace for the album, previously heavy on Haggard singing lead, this finds Nelson at the helm. Along with the change in vocalists comes an up kick in energy brought by Nelson to the track. Written by Jesse Ashlock, it’s a familiar tale of an ending relationship – the woman has done the man wrong and the couple has been together for too long. I also love the production on this song. The lead guitar gives it an almost Spanish vibe that I really dig.

“My Life’s Been a Pleasure” continues the change of pace through a very unique fiddle solo that helps the track stand out from the rest of the album even though it isn’t dramatically different in lyric or texture from anything else in the set. Also written by Ashlock, it’s a positive spin on love where life was enhanced because of the relationship, not beaten down by it.

Haggard’s wife Leona Williams composed “All The Soft Places to Fall,” and it’s a classic Haggard-type song. A true duet, it features a nice interplay between Haggard and Nelson and understated production that helps sell the lyrics. It’s one of my favorite songs on the whole project and grabbed me from the beginning. I like it because it feels like a return to form for the duo who are at home on a song in this vein.

Pancho and Lefty closes with “Opportunity to Cry,” a typical Nelson-style ballad he also wrote. I can’t muster up enthusiasm for the song because it’s too maudlin for my tastes. Nelson does what he does best here, but I’ve heard this kind of thing before, and don’t really get excited about hearing it again.

As an overall album, Pancho and Lefty is hit-or-miss with me. There were far too many places where the production, while understated and traditional, aged very poorly. On the strength of the title song I can see where this album garnered the love it received in 1983, but this just isn’t my type of thing. Too many ballads wore down this project and there wasn’t much I could be excited about.

The album was re-issued in 2003 with two extra tracks, an alternate take on “Half A Man” and the new song “My Own Peculiar Way.” The “Half A Man” reprise doesn’t offer much to differ from the original and “My Own Peculiar Way” is indicative of the rest of the album and features Nelson singing lead.

Pancho and Lefty is available in both hard and digital copy from Amazon and on iTunes .

Grade: B-

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star’

His last #1 hit, from 1987:

Week ending 10/29/11: #1 singles this week in country music history

1951: Always Late With Your Kisses — Lefty Frizzell (Columbia)

1961: Walk On By — Leroy Van Dyke (Mercury)

1971: How Can I Unlove You — Lynn Anderson (Columbia)

1981: Never Been So Loved (In All My Life) — Charley Pride (RCA)

1991: Anymore — Travis Tritt (Warner Bros.)

2001: Angry All The Time — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2011: God Gave Me You — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Kern River’

Classic Rewind: Dolly Parton – ‘Kentucky Gambler’

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson – ‘Pancho And Lefty’

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams’

In his lifetime Hank Williams was keen to be recognised as a songwriter and grateful for pop covers f his work. in the years since his tragic and self-induced death, his songs have been covered from artists across the This album presents a dozen songs based on lyrics or scraps of lyrics left by Hank Williams, which have been completed by contemporary artists. It is an interesting project if a controversial one, and I would have liked it to be clearer what each participant contributed to the creative process. The tunes are all newly composed; the lyrics apparently range from completed lyrics which need only the music to be added (‘The Love That Faded’, the original manuscript lyric for which is the only one to be reproduced in the liner notes) to just a couple of lines serving as springboard for a modern songwriter’s inspiration. Each artist also uses his or her usual producer and their own selection of studio musicians.

The results range from the excellent to the dire, with some in between. The artists include both country singers-songwriters and those from other genres with a longstanding appreciation for country music and Hank Williams in particular, with Bob Dylan the first to be approached. Perhaps unsurprisingly those artists with a deeper grounding in country music have produced results more in keeping with the original, and more to my personal taste.

The best track is Alan Jackson’s ‘You’ve Been Lonesome Too’, which opens the set and manages to sound genuinely inspired by Hank, helped along by Keith Stegall’s sensitively authentic production, the excellent recreation of the Drifting Cowboys by the likes of Stuart Duncan and Paul Franklin and Alan’s straightforward reading. It really doesn’t feel like pastiche, but a genuine unknown Hank Williams song, and one which stands up in its own right as an excellent song.

Vice Gill and Rodney Crowell collaborated on ‘I Hope You Shed A Million Tears’, and perform the song together. The Drifting Cowboys’ Don Helms provides added authenticity by guesting on steel on what must have been one of his last recording sessions (he died in 2008). Gill’s sweet vocal is interspersed with Crowell’s narration – the latter sounds more authentically Hank, but Gill sounds lovely and the final result is a fine song in its own right. I loved Crowell’s line, “I loved you like there’s no tomorrow, then found out that there’s not“. Merle Haggard tackles Hank’s religious side, giving a simple retelling of ‘The Sermon On The Mount’ an attractive melody.

Patty Loveless and husband Emory Gordy Jr carried out the writing duties on, and Patty sings the up-tempo ‘You’re Through Fooling Me’, which is highly enjoyable and sounds convincingly like a hillbilly song from the late 1940s if not necessarily a Hank Williams song. It would have fitted in well on either of her last two albums.

These four songs are the ones for country fans to download if going the digital route, and are all well worth adding to your digital library.

Hank’s grand daughter Holly Williams gives the family’s seal of approval to the project, and is repsosible for another highlight, although like a number of the artists included, her melody, while perfectly attractive, does not sound quite like a Hank Williams song. She delivers a smoothly sultry vocal on ‘Blue Is My Heart’, which is a very strong song in its own right, supported by her father on (uncredited) harmony. Norah Jones’s song, ‘How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart’ has a jazz-based tune and a stripped down production set to the acoustic guitars of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who also add tasteful harmonies. It is pleasant listening but ultimately lightweight, without the emotional intensity the lyrics demand. Lucinda Williams’s effort, ‘I’m So Happy I Found You’, has the opposite problem – a positive love song which sounds more like a dirge.

I was bored by Sheryl Crow’s ‘Angel Mine’ on first listen, but the multi-tracked vocals give it a folky feel which works quite well. Levon Helm’s distinctive vocal on ‘You’ll Never Again Be Mine’ (co-written with Helm’s producer Larry Campbell) has a nice old-time feel, backed up nicely by the backing vocals of Amy Helm and Teresa Williams, but is not the most interesting song.

The songs completed and sung by Bob Dylan (‘The Love That Faded’) and Jack White (‘You Know That I Know’) suffer from both gentlemen’s limited (to put it kindly) vocal ability, although they are both good songs. I would have really enjoyed ‘You Know That I Know’, an accusatory cheating song, if only a more competent singer had been allowed to front the performance, as White is awful. Dylan is not much better, but the sensitive production of his track is some recompense. His son Jakob is an unimpressive and bland vocalist and the melody of his song, ‘Oh Mama, Come Home’, lacks the urgency of the lyric.

Multi-artist tributes or concept albums always tend to be hit and miss, and this is no exception. There are enough tracks which work for this to be worth hearing.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘Big City’

Album Review – Merle Haggard – ‘Big City’ / ‘Goin’ Where The Lonely Go’

Recorded in July 1981 and released that October, Big City was created during a two-day recording session producing enough material to span this and his follow-up Going Where The Lonely Go, released a little more than a year later in 1982. Both projects were successful and charted four number one country hits between them. Big City, Haggard’s debut for Epic Records, would also go on to a Gold certification from the RIAA.

Big City primarily dealt with the plight of Urban America through tales of the workingman. Lead single “My Favorite Memory,” a love song of sorts, became Haggard’s 25 number one single in the fall of 1981. It stands out due to its understated production and confident vocal performance. I’m enjoying the directness of the lyrics here; Haggard is never one to mince words. The way he sings so openly about sex only makes the narrow-mindedness of today’s country radio more apparent. It’s a shame that such a great song would probably be deemed too risqué today.

Second single and title track “Big City” also topped the charts becoming Haggard’s 26th number one hit.  Drenched in the best of honky-tonk fiddle and steel guitar and Written by Haggard with Dean Holloway, “Big City” drives home the theme of dealing with the struggles faced by honest workingmen. Haggard is making a simple request here – he wants the big city to turn him loose and set him free; more specifically to Montana where he’d be free to have some fun like the rich get to do. He also bluntly tells his boss to keep his retirement and “so called social security,” since he only wants what’s coming to him. Like “Memory,” it’s the direct honesty from both the lyrics and Haggard’s vocal that draws me into the song.

“Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck was still Silver)” just missed the top spot, peaking at number 2 in the summer of 1982. Despite just missing the top, the track, written solely by Haggard, would go on to win the ACM Award for Song of the year in 1983. The only ballad released a single, “Good Times” is a companion single of sorts to “Big City.” If Haggard is pondering the good life in “City” he’s now wondering where it’s all gone. Haggard has grown mournful as he wishes Ford and Chevy automobiles still lasted ten years before wearing out and coke was still good ‘ol cola and joints were only bad places to be. Like all great vocalists, Haggard doesn’t just sing but rather conveys his message with all the pain he can muster. But what I really love about “Good Times” is how brilliantly Haggard was able to create a conversation with the listener. This isn’t just another country song but rather a document of where our country was in 1981. I’ve always said the best country songs portray the consciousness of America and this is what I’m talking about. Only a few such songs have surfaced since and the only one truly able to match this legacy is Ronnie Dunn’s latest single “Cost of Livin.’”

Like the hit singles, the rest of Big City is just as powerful. “Good Ole American Guest” continues Haggard’s love affair with trains, this time with a western swing-y arrangement. “I Think I’m Gonna Live Forever” has a terrific blues guitar and drum solo that sound surprisingly refreshing after all these years. While “Stop The World and Let me off” is an often-covered standard done most recently by Rhonda Vincent in 2009.  I also love the delightful “Texas Fiddle Song” which brings a core country instrument front and center.

But it’s “This Song is mine” that stopped me in my tracks. Why this track never became a classic is beyond me. I love how Haggard so honestly sings about how he’s stolen words and melodies before, but this song is all his. I’ve never heard a song talk so introspectively before about the art of songwriting like Haggard does here. The light drums and string section also do their job of nicely underscoring Haggard’s plainspoken vocal.

“You don’t have Very Far to Go” finds Haggard taking the most chances vocally as he puts some power behind his voice, while “I Always Get Lucky with You” is a classic torch ballad, done frequently in the early 1980s. Both are excellent additions to Haggard’s ever-growing catalog of outstanding material.

The rest of the songs from the two-day recording session comprise Goin’ Where The Lonely Go released in November 1982. Like it’s predecessor, Lonely also produced two number one hits.

The title track was issued as the first single, 29 years ago this week. “Goin’ Where The Lonely Go” remains one of Haggard’s most recognizable hits and a highlight from this period in his recording career. Led by his deep and haunting vocal, the track is made even spookier by the flourishes of piano heard throughout. It’s a masterful vocal from Haggard but we expected nothing less from him at this point. I love how the drum work actually seems to have purpose opposed to just having to be there.

The second and final single “You take me for Granted” was written by his then-wife Leona Williams. Another mournful ballad, it finds Haggard doing what he does best – traditionally arranged and well-sung country music. It’s another fine moment albeit not a favorite of mine though, it sounds too much like a few of his other hits in this vein.

But there’s more to the album than just the two singles. “Why Am I Drinkin’” is a classic barroom thumper, which has Haggard backed by a bouncy steel guitar and asking why he has to hurt this way. The track is dated – the female backup chorus is cheesy and distracting but it does play up the barroom vibe. “If I Left it up to You” finds a man willing to work on his relationship even though she’d rather not, and “For All I Know” finds Haggard playing a man unable to trust his lady love.

Listening to Going Where The Lonely Go is an experience that, for me, comes up short. Nothing beyond the excellent title track is really anything extraordinary and in the wake of Big City this album is a let down. Since they were both recorded during the same session one would assume equal quality but that isn’t the case. There isn’t anything wrong with Lonely but it greatly pales in comparison when placed against the stellar Big City.

Big City and Going Where The Lonely Go are both available from Amazon as a 2-for-1 import released this year. For the budget conscious, they are available separately from Amazon and iTunes in both hard and digital copy.

Big City: A

Going Where The Lonely Go: B 

Classic Rewind: Patty Loveless – ‘Lonely Too Long’

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Back To The Barrooms’

Released in October 1980, the last mainstream album Haggard recorded for MCA (a gospel release was his swan song for the label) was a concept album of sorts, on the classic country themes of broken hearts and honky tonks, with drinking and casual barroomhook-ups frequently serving as some kind of consolation for lost love. The traditional themes and basic country structures of the songs are counterpointed with a sometimes adventuruous production courteous of Jimmy Bowen, with extensive but tasteful use of brass giving a faint Dixieland jazz feel. Three quarters of the songs were written by Haggard, and, as a group, they form Haggard’s strongest collection in some years.

The downbeat melancholy of ‘Misery And Gin’ was originally recorded for the soundtrack of now-forgotten Clint Eastwood vehicle Bronco Billy (which had also produced Haggard’s first #1 hit of the 80s, his jovial duet with Eastwood, ‘Bar Room Buddies’, which was presumably not thought worthy of repeating here). ‘Misery And Gin’ is a great song, written by Snuff Garrett and John Durrill, shows the pain hiding behind the outward joviality of a barroom crowd, the protagonist hooking up with a fellow loser in love with only themselves to blame for their single status. Garrett produced the track, sweetening the downbeat mood with strings, as Haggard bemoans,

Here I am again mixing misery and gin
Sitting with all my friends and talking to myself
I look like I’m havin’ a good time, but any fool can tell
That this honky tonk heaven really makes you feel like hell

It peaked at #3. The defeated honky tonker ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink’, another classic number, with tinkling bar room piano cementing the mood, took him back to the top of the charts.

It was followed to radio by top 10 hit ‘Leonard’, a fond tribute to Tommy Collins, a Bakersfield singer-songwriter whose real name was Leonard Sipes, and who had been an early friend and inspiration to Haggard. The song, possibly my personal favorite on the album, traces the ups and downs of his friend’s career, as country star, songwriter, preacher, singer on the comeback trail, and hopeless alcoholic:

He laid it all aside to follow Jesus
For years he chose to let his music go
But preaching wasn’t really meant for Leonard
But how in the hell was Leonard supposed to know?

Well, life began to twist its way around him
And I wondered how he carried such a load
He came back again to try his luck in music
And lost his wife and family on the road.

After that he seemed to fall down even deeper
And I saw what booze and pills could really do
And I wondered if I’d ever see him sober
But I forgot about a friend that Leonard knew

Well, Leonard gave me lots of inspiration
He helped teach me how to write a country song
And he even brought around a bag of groceries
Back before “Muskogee” came along

The acutely observed story song of ‘Make Up And Faded Blue Jeans’ finds the struggling singer-songwriter protagonist half-reluctantly hooking up with an equally desperate older woman. It was not a single, but is a well-remembered song which has been covered by, among others, Daryle Singletary.

Title track ‘Back To The Bar Rooms Again’, yet another classic on an album packed with them, was written by Haggard with Dave Kirby. It draws once more on the honky tonk atmosphere and downbeat mood, with a cuckolded husband returning to drinking, although this time whiskey is the “best friend” of choice.

In ‘I Don’t Want To Sober Up Tonight’, he refuses to pretend everything’s okay in a troubled marriage/life. His own marriage, to Leona Williams, was beginning to crack at the seams, but they co-wrote the cheerful ‘Can’t Break The Habit’ celebrating a love which sounds a little more like co-dependency. That fracturing relationship may also have prompted Haggard’s choice to cover Hank Williams Jr’s rather final ‘I Don’t Have Any More Love Songs’.

Dave Kirby (who was, ironically enough, to marry Leona Williams in 1983 after her marriage to Haggard finally collapsed) co-wrote the mellow and melodic ‘Ever Changing Woman’ with Curly Putman. Iain Sutherland’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go; has a similar vibe, but is more forgettable.

The wistfully melancholic ‘Our Paths My Never Cross’ about missed opportunities for potential true love has a lovely tune and a jazzy feel thanks to the brass in the mix.

The album is easy to find on CD at reasonable prices, and is well worth tracking down. The production has dated a bit, but the songs haven’t, and this is recommended listening.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink’

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘The Way I Am’

After leaving Capitol it took Haggard a while to get himself back on track in the studio, as this period found Haggard focusing mostly on his live performances, operating larger and more swinging ensembles. Seeing a live Merle Haggard performance during the late 1970s was indeed a treat; however, his recorded output (and songwriting) suffered in the process. Losing the steady (and unobtrusive) hand of Ken Nelson as producer didn’t help either.

The Way I Am was Merle’s fifth album for MCA. After Ramblin’ Fever and My Farewell To Elvis things seemed to stagnate. I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall, peaked at #17 while spending twenty weeks on the charts and featured three singles that reached #2. Serving 190 Proof also peaked at #17 and spent twenty-five weeks on the charts while featuring four singles that each peaked at #4.

While The Way I Am only reached #16 on the charts, it had a long chart run of thirty-nine weeks and primed the pump for further success. Only the title track was released as a single, reaching #2 for two weeks (it reached #1 on both Cashbox and Record World charts) but with this album Haggard got back to focusing on his recorded vocals.

The Sonny Throckmorton title track probably describes the life most of us lead:

“Wish I was down on some blue bayou,
With a bamboo cane stuck in the sand.
But the road I’m on, don’t seem to go there,
So I just dream, keep on bein’ the way I am.

Wish I enjoyed what makes my living,
Did what I do with a willin’ hand.
Some would run, but that ain’t my way
So I just dream and keep on bein’ the way I am”

“Skybo” is one of two tracks on which Porter Wagoner shares production credits. Updating Jimmie Rodgers’ hobos to the last quarter of the twentieth century, “Skybo” tells the story of a man who works airports and hitches rides to new destinations. The song has a distinct Cajun feel to it.

“No One To Sing For But The Band” is a song of lost love. Not one of Hag’s better songs but still good.

“(Remember Me) I’m The One Who Loves You” is one of five older songs on the album. Written by Stuart Hamblen, a writer better known for gospel songs, the song is given a bluesy Dixieland feel. The song was a major hit several times and has been recorded by many including hit versions by Dean Martin, Ernest Tubb and Stuart Hamblen:

“If you’re all alone and blue
No one to tell your troubles to
Remember me cause I’m the one who loves you”

“Life’s Just Not The Way It Used To Be” is a decent piece of Haggard-penned filler, dealing with a topic Haggard dealt with many times in his songs. “Wake Up” is the other song co-produced by Porter Wagoner. While the song intro has a Dixieland feel to it, the song lapses into straight-forward country. The song has lyrics that could be interpreted in differing ways:

“Wake up, don’t just lay there like cold granite stone
Wake up, we’re too close to be alone
Wake up, and please, Darling, hold me if you would
Don’t just lay there like you’ve gone away for good

There’s too many empty pages with so many things in store
I can’t believe it’s over and you’ve closed the final door
And I’m not prepared to handle these things we’re going through
I wish God would grant me just one more night with you

“Where Have You Been” is the tale of a husband and family dealing with a wayward spouse. While not a classic Haggard song, it is a good enough effort to warrant listening.

The last four songs are songs often associated with the legendary Texas Troubadour, Ernest Tubb. During the period 1944-1956 honky-tonk was the dominant form of country music and Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman were the primary architects of the style.

At this point in his career Haggard no longer had the clout to get away with issuing whole albums with little apparent commercial appeal; however, he still had free rein to sprinkle his albums with oldies. “Take Me Back And Try Me One More Time” was penned by Tubb and initially issued in 1942. War-time shellac shortages prevented the record from receiving wide distribution so the record was re-released and charted in 1947. Haggard’s performance on this track makes me regret that Merle never got to do an entire Ernest Tubb tribute album as ET’s songs fit Merle’s voice so perfectly:

“Yes, I know I’ve been untrue
And I have hurt you through and through
But please have mercy on this heart of mine
Take me back and try me one more time”

“I’ll Always Be Glad To Take You Back” is another Tubb-penned song that Haggard handles to perfection. “It Makes No Difference Now” was penned by Floyd Tillman, the other pillar of the subgenre. There were several hit versions of the song (Cliff Bruner, Jimmie Davis) in the late 1930s and more in the early 1940s (Tillman, Tubb). The careful crafting of the lyrics led Ray Charles to record the song and include it in his classic Modern Sounds In County and Western Music album, released in 1961.

“Makes no difference now what kind of life fate hands me
I’ll get along without you now, that’s plain to see
I don’t care what happens next, ‘ cause I’ll get by somehow
I don’t worry ’cause it makes no difference now”

The album closes with another song written by Tubb, “It’s Been So Long Darling”. At the time this album was released, Ernest Tubb was in declining health (emphysema) so the song royalties were probably quite helpful to Tubb. This song was written about soldiers drafted into service during WW2 although it could have been written about soldiers in any war:

“It’s been so long, darlin’
But it won’t be long now
It’s been so long, darlin’
But I’ve kept ev’ry vow
I pray that you’ll be waiting
As you did in days gone by
It’s been so long, darlin’
Please don’t blame me if I cry.”

Merle Haggard would record one more secular studio album and a live album for MCA before moving to Epic, his label from late 1981 until mid-1989, where he experienced a renaissance that produced a number of successful albums and singles. Although Haggard’s tenure with MCA was brief, this album and the live Rainbow Stew album are reasons to remember his tenure with MCA.

Grade: A-

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard’s tribute to Elvis – ‘From Graceland To The Promised Land’

Week ending 10/22/11: #1 singles this week in country music history

1951: Always Late With Your Kisses — Lefty Frizzell (Columbia)

1961: Walk On By — Leroy Van Dyke (Mercury)

1971: How Can I Unlove You — Lynn Anderson (Columbia)

1981: Step By Step — Eddie Rabbitt (Elektra)

1991: Keep It Between The Lines — Ricky Van Shelton (Columbia)

2001: Where I Come From — Alan Jackson (Arista)

2011: Long Hot Summer — Keith Urban (Capitol)

Week ending 10/22/11: #1 albums this week in country music history

1966: Bill Anderson – I Love You Drops (Decca)

1971: Merle Haggard and The Strangers – Hag (Capitol)

1976: Waylon Jennings – Are You Ready For The Country? (RCA)

1981: Ronnie Milsap – There’s No Gettin’ Over Me (RCA)

1986: Randy Travis – Storms Of Life (Warner Brothers)

1991: Garth Brooks – Ropin’ The Wind (Capitol)

1996: LeAnn Rimes – Blue (Curb)

2001: Martina McBride – Greatest Hits (RCA)

2006: George Strait – It Just Comes Natural (MCA)

2011: Scotty McCreery – Clear As Day (Mercury/19/Interscope)

Classic Rewind: Merle Haggard – ‘A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today’

Classic Rewind: Helen Cornelius – ‘Fools’

A solo version of a song which was a duet hit for Helen with Jim Ed Brown in 1979:

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Serving 190 Proof’

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.

Grade: B