After leaving Capitol it took Haggard a while to get himself back on track in the studio, as this period found Haggard focusing mostly on his live performances, operating larger and more swinging ensembles. Seeing a live Merle Haggard performance during the late 1970s was indeed a treat; however, his recorded output (and songwriting) suffered in the process. Losing the steady (and unobtrusive) hand of Ken Nelson as producer didn’t help either.
The Way I Am was Merle’s fifth album for MCA. After Ramblin’ Fever and My Farewell To Elvis things seemed to stagnate. I’m Always On A Mountain When I Fall, peaked at #17 while spending twenty weeks on the charts and featured three singles that reached #2. Serving 190 Proof also peaked at #17 and spent twenty-five weeks on the charts while featuring four singles that each peaked at #4.
While The Way I Am only reached #16 on the charts, it had a long chart run of thirty-nine weeks and primed the pump for further success. Only the title track was released as a single, reaching #2 for two weeks (it reached #1 on both Cashbox and Record World charts) but with this album Haggard got back to focusing on his recorded vocals.
The Sonny Throckmorton title track probably describes the life most of us lead:
“Wish I was down on some blue bayou,
With a bamboo cane stuck in the sand.
But the road I’m on, don’t seem to go there,
So I just dream, keep on bein’ the way I am.
Wish I enjoyed what makes my living,
Did what I do with a willin’ hand.
Some would run, but that ain’t my way
So I just dream and keep on bein’ the way I am”
“Skybo” is one of two tracks on which Porter Wagoner shares production credits. Updating Jimmie Rodgers’ hobos to the last quarter of the twentieth century, “Skybo” tells the story of a man who works airports and hitches rides to new destinations. The song has a distinct Cajun feel to it.
“No One To Sing For But The Band” is a song of lost love. Not one of Hag’s better songs but still good.
“(Remember Me) I’m The One Who Loves You” is one of five older songs on the album. Written by Stuart Hamblen, a writer better known for gospel songs, the song is given a bluesy Dixieland feel. The song was a major hit several times and has been recorded by many including hit versions by Dean Martin, Ernest Tubb and Stuart Hamblen:
“If you’re all alone and blue
No one to tell your troubles to
Remember me cause I’m the one who loves you”
“Life’s Just Not The Way It Used To Be” is a decent piece of Haggard-penned filler, dealing with a topic Haggard dealt with many times in his songs. “Wake Up” is the other song co-produced by Porter Wagoner. While the song intro has a Dixieland feel to it, the song lapses into straight-forward country. The song has lyrics that could be interpreted in differing ways:
“Wake up, don’t just lay there like cold granite stone
Wake up, we’re too close to be alone
Wake up, and please, Darling, hold me if you would
Don’t just lay there like you’ve gone away for good
There’s too many empty pages with so many things in store
I can’t believe it’s over and you’ve closed the final door
And I’m not prepared to handle these things we’re going through
I wish God would grant me just one more night with you
“Where Have You Been” is the tale of a husband and family dealing with a wayward spouse. While not a classic Haggard song, it is a good enough effort to warrant listening.
The last four songs are songs often associated with the legendary Texas Troubadour, Ernest Tubb. During the period 1944-1956 honky-tonk was the dominant form of country music and Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman were the primary architects of the style.
At this point in his career Haggard no longer had the clout to get away with issuing whole albums with little apparent commercial appeal; however, he still had free rein to sprinkle his albums with oldies. “Take Me Back And Try Me One More Time” was penned by Tubb and initially issued in 1942. War-time shellac shortages prevented the record from receiving wide distribution so the record was re-released and charted in 1947. Haggard’s performance on this track makes me regret that Merle never got to do an entire Ernest Tubb tribute album as ET’s songs fit Merle’s voice so perfectly:
“Yes, I know I’ve been untrue
And I have hurt you through and through
But please have mercy on this heart of mine
Take me back and try me one more time”
“I’ll Always Be Glad To Take You Back” is another Tubb-penned song that Haggard handles to perfection. “It Makes No Difference Now” was penned by Floyd Tillman, the other pillar of the subgenre. There were several hit versions of the song (Cliff Bruner, Jimmie Davis) in the late 1930s and more in the early 1940s (Tillman, Tubb). The careful crafting of the lyrics led Ray Charles to record the song and include it in his classic Modern Sounds In County and Western Music album, released in 1961.
“Makes no difference now what kind of life fate hands me
I’ll get along without you now, that’s plain to see
I don’t care what happens next, ‘ cause I’ll get by somehow
I don’t worry ’cause it makes no difference now”
The album closes with another song written by Tubb, “It’s Been So Long Darling”. At the time this album was released, Ernest Tubb was in declining health (emphysema) so the song royalties were probably quite helpful to Tubb. This song was written about soldiers drafted into service during WW2 although it could have been written about soldiers in any war:
“It’s been so long, darlin’
But it won’t be long now
It’s been so long, darlin’
But I’ve kept ev’ry vow
I pray that you’ll be waiting
As you did in days gone by
It’s been so long, darlin’
Please don’t blame me if I cry.”
Merle Haggard would record one more secular studio album and a live album for MCA before moving to Epic, his label from late 1981 until mid-1989, where he experienced a renaissance that produced a number of successful albums and singles. Although Haggard’s tenure with MCA was brief, this album and the live Rainbow Stew album are reasons to remember his tenure with MCA.