My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Working In Tennessee’

Last year’s excellent I Am What I Am showed that a seventy-something Merle Haggard was still an artistic force to be reckoned with. His latest album (tastefully produced by the same team of Lou Bradley and Haggard himself) is not quite as strong, with good but not really outstanding material, and his ageing vocals seem to me to have deteriorated noticeably even since his last studio outing. But even a little below his best, he is always worth paying attention to.

Haggard wrote almost all of the songs, with two exceptions. He is convincingly unrepentant playing the drink-and-drugs fuelled murderer on T J Arnall’s ‘Cocaine Blues’ – famously covered by Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. The other is a pleasant but unremarkable version of classic duet ‘Jackson’ sung with Haggard’s wife Theresa, who made her debut on I Am What I Am.

She and Doug Colosio helped to write the interesting but distinctly odd ‘Laugh It Off’, offering advice to someone with a tendency to get in trouble with the law, and featuring an unnerving manic cackle. ‘Under The Bridge’ (another Theresa co-write with her husband) is a melodic portrait of an unemployed homeless couple with a possibly unrealistic optimistic outlook. The best of her contributions is the mellow reminiscing of early married life ‘Down On The Houseboat’, which sounds autobiographical with its mention of daughter Jenessa as an infant; Theresa’s harmony vocals add to the touching intimacy. Jenessa in turn wrote one song with her father, the rather good ‘Sometimes I Dream’, which has an attractive tune and pensive lyrics about coming to terms with a broken heart, and could have been a hit if it had been recorded 30 years ago.

Haggard’s teenage son Ben and old friend Willie Nelson guest on a revival of ‘Workin’ Man Blues’. Young Ben has a pretty good voice and plays guitar as well; I’ll be interested in seeing how his career develops.

Haggard has never been reluctant to express socio-political views, and here he lets us know ‘What I Hate’ (including hypocritical politicians and apathy), and advocating change:

What I live for is a chance to change and be everything I can be…
Now we can’t change the whole wide world
But maybe we could change our neighborhood

‘Truck Drivers’ Blues’ (written with Tim Howard) is a bit dull, although it is nicely played.

A couple of songs tackle the state of country music. The lively western swing of the title track tells the story of a former would-be star who fetches up at Opryland and witnesses last year’s devastating Nashville floods. The up-tempo ‘Too Much Boogie Woogie’ complains about the lack of traditional country music compared with 1963, namechecking the likes of Connie Smith, Marty Stuart, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Ernest Tubb.:

The truth about the matter is enough to make you cry…
The stuff they’re playing on the radio
Oughta be down at the bottom of the abyss

The boogie-woogie reference in particular dates it rather badly (and it’s been a while since Emmylou Harris was bearing a torch for traditional country), but it’s an enjoyable song.

Interestingly, this is one of those rare modern records to get a vinyl release for collectors as well as CD and digital.

Grade: B+

4 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Working In Tennessee’

  1. Razor X October 5, 2011 at 11:10 am

    I haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole album yet, but the first thing I noticed in the songs I did listen to was how much his voice has deteriorated since last year’s offering. As you pointed out, Merle is still worth listening to but it’s a bit sad to see and hear these legends begin to decline.

    • luckyoldsun October 6, 2011 at 12:00 am

      I’m a little leery of Merle turning his records into a vanity project for his family members. I did buy “I Am What I Am,” but I’ll probably hold off on this one until it’s in the on-line remainder bin.

  2. Razor X October 9, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Does anyone else think that Ben sounds a lot like Steve Wariner?

    • Occasional Hope October 9, 2011 at 4:25 pm

      I didn’t hear it on that track, but I do on this cover of Steve’s ‘Leaving’s Not The Only Way To Go’ which Ben has up on youtube:

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