My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute To Jimmie Rodgers’

Merle Haggard was extremely fortunate that he landed with Capitol Records where he was granted considerable musical independence by his producer Ken Nelson. Nelson believed in letting his artists have freedom of expression. Nelson was there to ensure a quality production job and to give direction if needed, but to otherwise stay out of the way. In the case of artists such as Sonny James, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, this approach paid enormous dividends. It is difficult to imagine a different producer allowing one of his artists to issue as many non-commercial albums as Nelson allowed Haggard.

I was living in England when this album was issued in 1969 and purchased the single album British condensation of the US two-record set. When I got back Stateside I purchased the two record set, which I have to this day. I was delighted to find it on CD but when I’m home I still listen to the LP, reserving the CD for use in the car.

Same Train, A Different Time is something of a travelogue through Jimmie’s career with twenty of Jimmie’s songs interspersed with five narrations penned by Hugh Cherry and read by Haggard. This album features Haggard’s Strangers, with Roy Nichols often playing blues harmonica, instead of his customary lead guitar. The band, augmented by legendary guitarist James Burton on dobro, does a reasonable good job of replicating the feel (if not necessarily the sound) of the JR originals, and Haggard’s vocals are clearly a labor of love, complete with yodels. I should note that Jimmie Rodgers recorded in a number of settings, ranging from a simple guitar accompaniment to a full orchestra, with at least one recording featuring jazz legends Louis Armstong (trumpet) and Lil Hardin (piano). Haggard does not attempt to replicate the more complex settings sometimes found on Rodgers’ recordings but focuses on a basic blues or country setting. He also tends to focus more on songs that are based on the blues than Jimmie’s other inspirations.

Looking from the vantage point of 2011, it is difficult to comprehend just how important Jimmie Rodgers was to the development of country music as we know it. Such diverse performers as Jimmie Davis, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones, Elton Britt, Wilf “Montana Slim” Carter and Lefty Frizzell all had Jimmie Rodgers as a primary influence in the development of their own musical styles – Snow and Tubb even worked overtime in helping establish the Jimmie Rodgers Festival Museum in Meridian, Mississippi.

Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) was a railroad man who worked for many of America’s railroads until tuberculosis left him too weak to work. Jimmie had the heart and soul of a wanderer, and found his inspiration wherever music was played, incorporating blues, Appalachian ballads, jazz, vaudeville tunes, Tin Pan Alley and English parlor songs into his repertoire and creating a synthesis that inspired generations to come. Although Haggard grew up hearing Jimmie’s songs performed by others (such as Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow) it wasn’t until 1951 when Lefty Frizzell issued a series of 78 rpm recordings in tribute to Jimmie Rodgers (later issued as an LP), that Haggard went to the trouble of looking up the actual recordings of Jimmie Rodgers.

Merle Haggard has often been referred to as the “Poet of the Common Man” and such a sobriquet could as easily be used to refer to the Jimmie Rodgers, who sang of ramblers, gamblers. hobos, railroad workers and persons left penniless by the Great Depression. Jimmie was variously referred to as “The Singing Brakeman” or the “The Blue Yodeler”. In singing the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, Merle is faithful to the feel of Jimmie’s songs, even including the blue yodels where appropriate (which is on most of the songs)

For those unfamiliar with the blue yodel, it is only vaguely similar to the yodeling style of Ranger Doug, Roy Rogers, Connie Smith, Margo Smith or Jean Shepard, who employ a rolling Swiss yodel. The blue yodel is often said to mimic the lonesome sound of a freight train whistle but I would describe it as more of a series of falsetto breaks or jumps. However you wish to describe it, Haggard employs the yodel well enough to convey the emotions of the songs.

The album opens with a song that remains popular to this day “California Blues” (a/k/a “Blue Yodel #4”), recorded in recent years by artists such as Wayne Hancock and John Fogarty. The song conveys the restless spirit of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl migrations to California – “I’m goin’ to California, where they sleep out every night.

The second track is one of my favorites, “The Hobo’s Meditation”, a song performed by Hank Snow, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt among others. The chorus is full of rich imagery:

Will there be any freight trains in heaven
Any boxcars in which we might hide
Will there be any tough cops or brakemen
Will they tell us that we cannot ride

Will the hobo chum with the rich man
Will we always have money to spare
Will they have respect for the hobo
In that land that lies hidden up there?

“Waiting For A Train” is one of the most recorded Jimmie Rodgers songs, a song that has been recorded by the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash . Hag’s treatment is very straight-forward but the song lends itself to other treatments as well. The song is two verses without a chorus (just a tag line at the end of each verse).

“Mother, The Queen of My Heart” is a rather sentimental piece, not often recorded or performed today. Other than this recording, I can only think of one other mainstream country artist (Stonewall Jackson) and one other mainstream folk-pop artist (Arlo Guthrie) who recorded the song, although I’m sure there must be others. The song couples a strong sentimental streak with a moralizing lyric on the evils of gambling.

“My Carolina Sunshine Girl” is more of a twenties pop song song than anything else. Written by Jimmie in 1928, the lyric evokes the sort of sentimentality that Pin Pan Alley often produced:

Moon, moon, I can see you sinking low
You make me think of a sweetheart, a little girl that I love so
After I wonder the whole night through wondering if you think of me
Why am I lonesome thinking of someone, I’m thinking only of you
My Carolina sunshine girl, you have turned my heart to stone
My Carolina sunshine girl, you have left me all al
one

“Train Whistle Blues” is a good example of Jimmie Rodgers working the blues idiom to maximum effect:

When a woman gets the blues she hangs her little head and cries
But when a man gets the blues he grabs a train and rides

This song still is performed by roots artists and Haggard gives it an especially adept reading.

“Why Should I Be Lonely” is a sentimental ballad whereas “Jimmie’s Texas Blues” is another blues based lament:

The way I been treated, some time I wish I was dead;
The way I been treated, some time I wish I was dead;
[SPOKEN] Lord knows…
‘Cause I ain’t got no place
To lay my weary head

“She Left Me This Mornin’” (a/k/a “Blue Yodel #6”) follows next, a typical blues-based effort, followed by one of Jimmie’s two or three most famous songs, “Mule Skinner Blues” (a/k/a Blue Yodel #8). This song is still performed frequently by country and bluegrass performers throughout the world. The song was a hit for Bill Monroe in the 1930s, a major pop hit for the Fendermen in 1960, served as Dolly Parton’s breakthrough hit in 1970 and has been recorded by acts as diverse as Woody Guthrie, Van Morrison and Jose Feliciano:

Well, good morning, Captain
Well, good morning son
Do you need another mule skinner
Down on your new mud run

The song, in a sped up instrumental version, served as the theme music for the television show Hee Haw.

“Peach Pickin’ Time In Georgia” is one of the relatively few truly upbeat Jimmie Rodgers songs, celebrating the life of the rounder. The song has been performed by many different performers including Grandpa Jones, Lefty Frizzell, Doc Watson and many folk and bluegrass performers

When it’s peach picking time in Georgia, apple picking time in Tennessee
Cotton picking time in Mississippi, that everybody picks on me
And when it’s roundup time in Texas, the cowboys make whoopee
Way down in old Carolina, it’s gal picking time to me

“Down The Old Road Home” is another sentimental song while “Travelin’ Blues” is another song structured along the blues.

“Miss The Mississippi and You” is one of the few songs on the set that Jimmie Rodgers did not write or co-write. Although written in the form of a pop song, it does lend itself to Jimmie’s style, with plenty of space for yodels. Although a very slow song and quite melancholy, it has proven itself to be quite enduring, with Rosanne Cash recently recording the song, Crystal Gayle using it as the title cut on a 1979 album, and even Bob Dylan recording it in the early 1990s. The opening verse sets the tenor of the song:

I’m growing tired of these big city nights
Tired of the glamour and tired of the sights
In all my dreams, I am roving once more
Back to my home on the old river shore

and the chorus drives it home:

I am sad and weary, far away from home
Miss the Mississippi and you
Nights are dark and dreary, everywhere I roam
Miss the Mississippi and you

“Frankie and Johnny” is a public domain song that Jimmie rearranged and Merle obviously has fun singing. “No Hard Times” was written during the height of the Great Depression – the narrator in the song attempts to convince himself that there is reason to be optimistic – an emotion felt by few at the time

I got a barrel of flour, Lord, I got a bucket of lard
I got a barrel of flour, Lord, I got a bucket of lard
I ain’t got no blues, got chickens in my backyard.

Got corn in my crib, cotton growin’ in my patch
I got corn in my crib, cotton growin’ in my patch
I got that old hen a sittin’ waitin’ for that old hen to hatch
Yodel lay dee-oh hard time blues
.

“Hobo Bill’s Last Ride” is the end-of-the-line companion to “Hobo’s Meditation”. During the Great Depression many “down and outers” traveled from city to city seeking work by hopping a ride in the box cars of freight trains – some of them died during the journey, Hobo Bill being one of them.

“My Old Pal” is another sentimental song. “No Body Knows But Me” is a self-mocking mid-tempo blues lament. My favorite version is by Lefty Frizzell, but Merle delivers the goods with his wry vocal:

Why did I stray from the righteous path, Nobody knows but me,
There on the outside you all can laugh, I don’t need your sympathy.
For after I’ve paid for the liquor I sold, I’ll leave this place worth my weight in gold.

So why did I stray from the righteous path, Nobody knows but me. TAG: Nobody knows but me.

Same Train, A Different Time closes with the last song Jimmie Rodgers recorded, “Jimmie Rodgers’ Last Blue Yodel”, a song recorded literally hours before his death from tuberculosis. The song was released by Victor (later RCA) after Jimmie’s death in 1933. Sometimes known as “The Women Make A Fool Out of Me” (the tag line Ernest Tubb used instead of a yodel), this jaunty song focus on the life of the rambler, structured as a blues song, but not as a lament:

I love the women I love them all the same
I love the women I love them all the same
But I don’t love nobody well enough to change her name
The women make a fool out of me

Hey my papa scolded me, my mama she set and cried
Oh my papa scolded me, my mama she set and cried
Said I have too many women for any little boy my size
Yeah and women make a fool out of me

Merle Haggard was one of the few artists of his time who looked both to the past and to the future in his musical repertoire. With Same Train, A Different Time, Merle paid tribute to an artist that Merle felt was being forgotten. In reviewing this album, I’ve tried to convey a sense of what the songs were about, realizing that very few of them are likely to ever reappear in modern country music. The album did not kick off a Jimmie Rodgers revival but it did help to keep Jimmie’s memory alive, the likes of Leon Redbone and Roy Bookbinder having alluded to the album as a source for material. While modern country music has largely abandoned the roots of country music, these songs can still be found in the repertoire of folk, blues and bluegrass artists.

Although this album yielded no hit singles (“California Blues” was issued as the B side of “Hungry Eyes”) the album was not the commercial failure that producer Ken Nelson must have feared as it reached #1 on the country album charts for two weeks (no mean feat for a double album) and staying on the charts for 34 weeks. Same Train, A Different Time was actually the first of Hag’s Capitol albums to be reissued on CD, with EMI-Toshiba releasing the album in Japan (!) in 1990.

Grade: A

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2 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute To Jimmie Rodgers’

  1. Paul W Dennis October 11, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I received an email inquiry a few minutes ago – so the answer to that email – yes, Gene Autry also was a Jimmie Rodgers acolyte

    Ten songs per vinyl album was the standard in 1969, a standard labels tightly adhered to for purposes of paying song copyright fees. There were several well known songs that could/should otherwise have been on the album. “T for Texas” remains popular to this day, a song you often hear in live concert and was performed by bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd

    “In The Jailhouse Now” which was standardized by Rodgers (but thought to be originally composed by a pair of bluesmen) now was a hit several times including by Webb Pierce, who had it at #1 for 21 weeks. Perhaps Merle was too recently freed from prison to find the humor in the song. The song lives on, recently in the soundtrack of OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU

  2. Alan Seltzer November 8, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    “Same Train Different Time” is my number 1 favorite CD among around 500 folk, bluegrass, and Americana CDs in my collection.

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