My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’

1972’s It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) was Merle Haggard’s 15th studio album for Capitol Records. Like his previous efforts, it was produced by Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen. It was recorded entirely at California — part of it as early as 1970 — at Capitol Records Studio and United Recording Studio in Hollywood, and Buck Owens Studio in Bakersfield. He wrote five of the album’s eleven tracks, relying on writers such as Hank Cochran, Glenn Martin, Tommy Collins, and Red Lane to supply the rest of the album’s songs. Cochran and Glenn supplied the title track, which became Merle’s 13th #1 hit. It’s one of my favorite Merle Haggard tunes that he didn’t write himself. Emmylou Harris revived it a decade later when she included a version on her live Last Date album.

The title track was the only single released from the collection, so most of the tunes here will be unfamiliar to many fans; however, this is an excellent collection without a single dud among its eleven tracks. Haggard’s own “My Woman Keeps Lovin’ Her Man” and “New York City Blues” which finds him homesick in Yankee territory, are both excellent, with the latter showing a strong Jimmie Rodgers influence. Another Haggard original, “A Shoulder To Cry On” would become a #1 hit for Charley Pride a few months later. Pride had expressed an interest in the song upon hearing Haggard perform it shortly after it was written. Merle generously allowed Charley to record the song and release it as a single. Had he kept it for himself, it’s a safe assumption to say that his own version would have reached the top of the charts.

“Dad’s Old Fiddle” sounds like a Haggard-penned tune, but it was actually written by Glenn Martin, most likely with Merle in mind. It tells the story of a man who inherits his father’s fiddle and learns to play it. Merle’s own father had played the fiddle in Oklahoma, but gave it up before Merle was born, and Merle later taught himself how to play the instrument when he was preparing to record his Bob Wills tribute album.

The most fun track on the album is Tommy Collins’ “The Conversion of Ronnie Jones”, a humorous tale about a man who marries Annie, a God-fearing woman who persuades him to join her church. He agrees to do so, and is required to publicly confess his sins, which he readily does. Unfortunately, he names names, causing great embarrassment of many of the ladies in the congregation and angering his new bride:

Another kind of fire began to burn down in the depths of Annie’s soul
She turned on Ron and used some words nobody’d ever heard her use before.
Sometimes, we know not what we pray for ….

Merle’s next studio release was 1974’s If We Make It Through December. At first glance, it seems like a large gap between albums, particularly for the 1970s when most artists released two or three albums a year. However, in the interim between It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) and If We Make It Through December, Merle released a live album recorded in New Orleans (I Love Dixie Blues) and a Christmas album (Merle Haggard’s Christmas Present). The single “If We Make It Through December” made its first appearance on the Christmas album. It spent four weeks at #1 in December 1973 and January 1974, before becoming the title track of his next album. It also cracked the top 30 of Billboard’s all-genre Hot 100 chart. One of Haggard’s best known songs, it tells the story of man who has lost his job just before the holidays and is struggling to make ends meet. Sadly, the song’s lyrics are every bit as relevant today as they were in the 1970s.

If We Make It Through December
finds Merle contributing fewer than usual original songs; he only penned three of the album’s eleven tracks. Among these three contributions is “Love and Honor”, the album’s best track. Strong enough to have been released a single, one wonders why it remained buried as an album cut — and why someone else didn’t eventually release their own version.

Because he contributed fewer of his own songs, If We Make It Through December has a more diverse and slightly more polished sound than many of Haggard’s albums. He turns in a surprisingly strong performance on a cover of the old pop standard “To Each His Own”, which at first seems like it would be a stretch for him, but he tones down the twang and makes the song his own. “You’re The Only Girl In The Game”, written by Hank Cochran and Glenn Martin is more country, but also includes some Nashville Sound flourishes such as strings and a vocal chorus, though neither is intrusive. Unlike most of Haggard’s earlier releases, If We Make It Through December” was recorded in Nashville, which may also account for the slightly more mainstream sound.

Things take a more traditional turn with Merle’s spirited cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “I’m An Old, Old Man (Tryin’ To Live While I Can)”, while Marcia Nichols’ “Come On Into My Arms” takes a detour into Dixieland jazz. “Better Off When I Was Hungry” explores the theme of fame and fortune not always being all they’re cracked up to be. “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight”, written by Sanger D. Shafer and Arthur Leo Owens, is an excellent tune which finds Merle once again singing about a prisoner serving a life sentence, who finds solace in his dreams about being home with his family. Floyd Tillman’s “This Cold War” provides a bit of Western swing. The album closes with the gospel number “There’s Just One Way” which Merle co-wrote with Kenny Seratt.

It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) and If We Make It Through December are available on a 2-for-1 CD from the UK’s BGO Records. As an import, it’s slightly more expensive than some of Haggard’s domestic reissues, but it is still excellent value and highly recommended.

Grades:

It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad): A
If We Make It Through December: A

3 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’

  1. Paul W Dennis October 17, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Released only two months before IT’S NOT LOVE the anthology THE BEST OF THE BEST OF MERLE HAGGARD had a very strong chart run spending seven weeks at #1 and twenty-nine weeks on the charts.Perhaps Capitol feared oversaturation of the market (such as happened to George Jones during the 60s)

    Both are excellent albums – my copies are both on vinyl so I’ll need to look for this BGO release

    • Ken Johnson October 18, 2011 at 10:18 am

      “The Best Of The Best Of Merle Haggard” was a bit of a disappointment to me due to the track selection. Don’t get me wrong, every track on this collection is a superb performance however when an album is billed as a “best of” I expect to hear mostly single hits. The first “Best Of Merle Haggard” album released in mid-1968 included all of Merle’s top ten hits from “(All My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers” through “Sing Me Back Home” along with 2 non-hit singles and 2 album tracks. At the time that this second “best of ” collection hit the market in 1972 Merle had accumulated an amazing total of 17 additional top ten hits that included two double-sided hit singles. Of the 11 tracks that comprised “The Best Of The Best Of Merle Haggard” only five of them were actual single hit singles. The version of “Okie From Muskogee” on that album was lifted from his “Fightin’ Side Of Me” live album rather than the original studio recording that was the award-winning single hit. I so wished to have a new LP version of that particular song as my original 45RPM record from 1969 was getting pretty worn out by 1972. That original hit single version was never available on a Capitol Merle Haggard album until it was finally issued on the “Okie From Muskogee” budget compilation CD in 1989.

      Certainly “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Silver Wings” qualified for inclusion. Even though they did not actually chart, both songs became popular as significant “flip sides.” They became Haggard standards through jukebox play and eventual radio exposure due to fan requests. No question that this LP re-release further fueled their popularity and gave radio stations a new vinyl source for request play. The remaining tracks were LP cuts that could have been eliminated in favor of “The Legend Of Bonnie And Clyde,” “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am,” “Jesus, Take A Hold,” “I Can’t Be Myself” or other top-ten hits.

      By the way the audio quality on the all of the Merle Haggard BGO re-releases that I own so far have been excellent with one exception. The two-fer with the Merle/Bonnie duet album and “The Fightin’ Side Of Me” live Philadelphia concert. The audio for the duet album was excellent but the live album sounded like a worn cassette tape. Very muddy sounding by comparision to their other reissues. On the other hand the Bear Family reissue of that live LP in their third Merle Haggard box set is absolutely pristine so BGO definitely used an inferior audio source.

  2. Ken Johnson October 17, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    Merle Haggard protégé Kenny Serratt released an EXCELLENT version of “Love And Honor” produced by the Hag as an MGM single in late 1973. Unfortunately it failed to click and climbed no higher than #70.

    Merle released two versions of “A Shoulder To Cry On.” The first was recorded on November 19, 1971 and was released on the flipside of “I’m A White Boy” (Capitol 3376) an ill-fated single that failed to chart in 1972. That single was released prior to “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad).” Apparently some of the lyrics of “I’m A White Boy” gave radio programmers pause and they passed on adding it to their playlists. The version of “A Shoulder To Cry On” released on the “It’s Not Love” album was recorded May 12, 1972. The slower paced more acoustic treatment of the single version is superior in my book.

    Merle had originally planned a studio album for the “I Love Dixie Blues” album but scrapped it at the very last moment in favor of the live recording. The studio album had already been mastered and test pressings were made when Merle changed course. Capitol used the original album graphics but added (….so I recorded live in New Orleans.”)
    Most of the previously recorded studio tracks that had been intended for that album were eventually released on later albums and singles. For those interested, this was the track lineup for the original studio “I Love Dixie Blues” LP:

    1) Hag’s Dixie Blues #2
    2) Lovesick Blues
    3) The Emptiest Arms In The World
    4) Stingeree
    5) Mississipi Delta Blues
    6) Radiator Man From Wasco
    7) Blues For Dixie
    8) Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)
    9) Gamblin’ Polka Dot Blues
    10) Come Into My Arms
    11) I Ain’t Got Nobody

    Regarding the “If We Make It Through December” album. Because that single became such a big hit Capitol did not want it to be only available on a Christmas album and quickly assembled a title album using whatever tracks were available. In other words Merle did not approach it as a “whole album” project. Nevertheless the strength of that diverse group of songs demonstrates just how strong Merle’s ability in the recording studio was during that era.

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