My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘My Love Affair With Trains’ and ‘The Roots Of My Raising’

After over a decade on Capitol, 1976 saw Haggard calling a halt to his association with the label. He was still at his peak, and that year he was to release three albums, two of which are avilable on one CD reissue. One of these was his first thematic concept album (as opposed to his tributes to two of the musical heroes who had inspired him), My Love Affair With Trains. Haggard wanted to document his lifelong love of trains at a time when this important element of American history was being swept away, and to pay tribute to the men who had worked and lived on the railroads.

It opens with an acoustic snippet from ‘Mama Tried’ with its reference to his childhood dreams of trains, leading into the first of a series of spoken reminiscences and comments over a selection of genuine train and whistle sounds, which are interspersed with the songs. Proceedings open with the Dolly Parton-penned title track, a cheerful mid-tempo number with solid train rhythms which belies the generally elegiac mood. The subdued and melancholy ‘Union Station’, written by Ronnie Reno (the bluegrass singer and musician who was then a member of the Strangers) about a station threatened with demolition, exemplifies the overall tone.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the obvious personal resonance of the subject matter, only one song is a Haggard original. That self-penned song is the firmly autobiographical ‘No More Trains To Ride’, a catchy mid-tempo song, with somewhat wistful lyrics as Merle reflects on his father’s railroad career and the hoboes in a vanished world. Red Lane’s ‘The Coming And Going Of The Trains’ narrates the story of the railways over history by dipping into the lives of those affected. There is the arrival of the railroads, displacing the Native Americans, providing a lifeline for drought stricken farmers in Texas, giving hope to prisoners measuring time by counting off trains, and finally the regret of an engineer about to be pensioned off. Mark Yeary’s ‘I Won’t Give Up My Train’ is a first person story song about a railroad engineer who can’t bring himself to leave the travelling life even when it conflicts with his family responsibilities.

Dave Kirby contributed three songs, the reflective story of a just-retired train worker bidding ‘So Long, Train Whistle’ and sharing his own sense of superfluity. The wistful wondering of ‘Where Have All the Hobos Gone?’ and the cheerier ‘The Hobo’ both give a voice to the trainhopping vagrants of times past.

Jimmy Buffett and Jerry Jeff Walker wrote another story song, the incisive and not unaffectionate portrait of an ageing ‘Railroad Lady’ of easy virtue now longing for home:

She’s a railroad lady
Just a little bit shady
Spending her days on the train
She’s a semi-good looker
But the fast rails they took her
Now she’s trying, just trying to get home again

Once a Pullman car traveler.
Now the brakeman won’t have her

The upbeat and jazzy ‘Here Comes The Freedom Train’ (written by Stephen H. Lemberg) memorably uses trains as a metaphor for American history and progress, and sounds as though it was inspired by the Bicentennial celebrations of 1976. The album’s sole single (and the most atypical song on it), it was a top 10 hit in the US and (rather ironically) #1 in Canada.

Sterling Whipple’s ‘The Silver Ghost’ is a story song based on an old mining legend, with a Marty Robbins western feel. It was omitted from some later reissues of the album, but brings a welcome change of pace and tone. The album as a whole is remarkably varied musically, and although the subject matter may not be of universal interest, it is a serious work of art.

Later the same year came Haggard’s swansong for Capitol, and he went out with a bang, with two #1 singles and an album which in many respects summarizes his life and career. The Roots Of My Raising is one of the best albums of his career, even though his own songwriting is sidelined. Old Bakersfield friend Tommy Collins (recently spotlighted in Paul W. Dennis’s Country Heritage series on this site) contributed the title track, which was a #1 single. It harks back fondly to the innocence of youth, with Bonnie Owens on harmony, and the song feels entirely authentic.

The other hit single was ‘Cherokee Maiden’, Haggard’s last #1 for four years. The choice of this Cindy Walker song was a further nod to his hero Bob Wills, and it is entertaining if not groundbreaking. He also revisited Jimmie Rodgers with authentic and enjoyable bluesy versions of ‘Gamblin’ Polka Dot Blues’ and ‘Delta Blues’. Yearning covers of the very traditional ‘The Waltz You Saved For Me’ (a Ferlin Husky hit from 1962 later covered by John Anderson) and the Lefty Frizzell classic ‘I Never Go Around Mirrors’ are also excellent.

Dave Kirby’s gloomy story song ‘What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana?’ was the flip side of the ‘Cherokee Maiden’ single and should perhaps have been the A-side, as it is a better song and mor ememoprable recording, and a real highlight of the album. The emotional delivery brings emotional veracity to a man whose enduring love for his wife makes grinding poverty bearable, and ends with him anticipating death to join his beloved. The great Harlan Howard teamed up with Kirby to write of a dying prisoner’s yearning (after spending most of his adult life in prison) for a ‘Walk On The Outside’, and once more Haggard’s emotive vocal completely convinces, and reminds us of his own youthful jail time. Kirby also wrote a reflective tribute to the beauties of ‘Colorado’, where the protagonist suggests God “spends most of his time”.

Once more, Haggard himself wrote only one song, but it is a very good one, the emotionally intense ‘Am I Standing In Your Way?’ The protagonist questions a loved one whether it is worth his fighting for the relationship when she is clearly thinking of another man.

There are no weak tracks here, and this album is a must-have inclusion in any serious Haggard collection. My Love Affair With Trains, while an excellent record, is more of a niche product, but the 2for1 CD reissue combining the pair is extremely good value.

Grade: A for both albums.

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