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