My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Back To The Barrooms’

Released in October 1980, the last mainstream album Haggard recorded for MCA (a gospel release was his swan song for the label) was a concept album of sorts, on the classic country themes of broken hearts and honky tonks, with drinking and casual barroomhook-ups frequently serving as some kind of consolation for lost love. The traditional themes and basic country structures of the songs are counterpointed with a sometimes adventuruous production courteous of Jimmy Bowen, with extensive but tasteful use of brass giving a faint Dixieland jazz feel. Three quarters of the songs were written by Haggard, and, as a group, they form Haggard’s strongest collection in some years.

The downbeat melancholy of ‘Misery And Gin’ was originally recorded for the soundtrack of now-forgotten Clint Eastwood vehicle Bronco Billy (which had also produced Haggard’s first #1 hit of the 80s, his jovial duet with Eastwood, ‘Bar Room Buddies’, which was presumably not thought worthy of repeating here). ‘Misery And Gin’ is a great song, written by Snuff Garrett and John Durrill, shows the pain hiding behind the outward joviality of a barroom crowd, the protagonist hooking up with a fellow loser in love with only themselves to blame for their single status. Garrett produced the track, sweetening the downbeat mood with strings, as Haggard bemoans,

Here I am again mixing misery and gin
Sitting with all my friends and talking to myself
I look like I’m havin’ a good time, but any fool can tell
That this honky tonk heaven really makes you feel like hell

It peaked at #3. The defeated honky tonker ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink’, another classic number, with tinkling bar room piano cementing the mood, took him back to the top of the charts.

It was followed to radio by top 10 hit ‘Leonard’, a fond tribute to Tommy Collins, a Bakersfield singer-songwriter whose real name was Leonard Sipes, and who had been an early friend and inspiration to Haggard. The song, possibly my personal favorite on the album, traces the ups and downs of his friend’s career, as country star, songwriter, preacher, singer on the comeback trail, and hopeless alcoholic:

He laid it all aside to follow Jesus
For years he chose to let his music go
But preaching wasn’t really meant for Leonard
But how in the hell was Leonard supposed to know?

Well, life began to twist its way around him
And I wondered how he carried such a load
He came back again to try his luck in music
And lost his wife and family on the road.

After that he seemed to fall down even deeper
And I saw what booze and pills could really do
And I wondered if I’d ever see him sober
But I forgot about a friend that Leonard knew

Well, Leonard gave me lots of inspiration
He helped teach me how to write a country song
And he even brought around a bag of groceries
Back before “Muskogee” came along

The acutely observed story song of ‘Make Up And Faded Blue Jeans’ finds the struggling singer-songwriter protagonist half-reluctantly hooking up with an equally desperate older woman. It was not a single, but is a well-remembered song which has been covered by, among others, Daryle Singletary.

Title track ‘Back To The Bar Rooms Again’, yet another classic on an album packed with them, was written by Haggard with Dave Kirby. It draws once more on the honky tonk atmosphere and downbeat mood, with a cuckolded husband returning to drinking, although this time whiskey is the “best friend” of choice.

In ‘I Don’t Want To Sober Up Tonight’, he refuses to pretend everything’s okay in a troubled marriage/life. His own marriage, to Leona Williams, was beginning to crack at the seams, but they co-wrote the cheerful ‘Can’t Break The Habit’ celebrating a love which sounds a little more like co-dependency. That fracturing relationship may also have prompted Haggard’s choice to cover Hank Williams Jr’s rather final ‘I Don’t Have Any More Love Songs’.

Dave Kirby (who was, ironically enough, to marry Leona Williams in 1983 after her marriage to Haggard finally collapsed) co-wrote the mellow and melodic ‘Ever Changing Woman’ with Curly Putman. Iain Sutherland’s ‘Easy Come, Easy Go; has a similar vibe, but is more forgettable.

The wistfully melancholic ‘Our Paths My Never Cross’ about missed opportunities for potential true love has a lovely tune and a jazzy feel thanks to the brass in the mix.

The album is easy to find on CD at reasonable prices, and is well worth tracking down. The production has dated a bit, but the songs haven’t, and this is recommended listening.

Grade: A

4 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Back To The Barrooms’

  1. Paul W Dennis October 25, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Great review

    “Bar Room Buddies” appeared on the soundtrack album for BRONCO BILLY. It was released on the Elektra label so presumably MCA didn’t own the rights to it.

    While I loved THE WAY I AM, it used a lot of songs by other writers. This album spoke more with Haggard’s voice than some of the prior albums

    “Leonard” is my favorite song on this album, but I already know the backstory on Tommy Collins and appreciate how succinctly Haggard managed to tell the story. In fact that’s the main difference between today’s song writers and Merle Haggard – Haggard can tell a four minute story in 2:30 whereas today’s writers use four minites to tell a 2:30 story

  2. Andrew Leprich October 25, 2011 at 9:52 am

    This is one of my favorite Haggard albums. Every song is a winner.

  3. Ken Johnson October 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Great review of one of Haggard’s better MCA efforts. It’s too bad that “Leonard” was not written and released earlier in Merle’s career. By 1980 most of the new “Urban Cowboy” country audience didn’t know and didn’t much care about Tommy Collins. A decade earlier it could have been a much bigger hit.

    Always thought that “Back To The Barrooms Again” was strong enough to have been a single hit. It did receive some split radio airplay as the flip side to “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink” but not enough to chart.

    As Paul pointed out, because “Bar Room Buddies” with Clint Eastwood was recorded for the “Bronco Billy” movie soundtrack and released on the Elektra label, MCA did not have access to that recording. A poor-quality version that sounds like it was remastered from a worn vinyl record was released on the 2-CD set “40 #1 Hits” on Capitol in 2004. Unfortunately the original “Bronco Billy” soundtrack album has never been re-released on CD. Also the MCA release of “Misery And Gin” is a remix of the Elektra soundtrack version with a slightly different Haggard vocal.

    “Make-Up And Faded Blue Jeans” actually did receive a single release almost four years after Hag left MCA. The record peaked at #55 in July 1985. It was the last of three MCA singles released after he officially exited the label. That single was an effort to obtain radio play to help create sales for an MCA Merle Haggard compilation album “His Best” (MCAD-5573) featuring that song, “Leonard” and 8 more album tracks and single “B” sides released during his MCA tenure. The track also surfaced again on the MCA “Merle Haggard Songwriter” compilation released in 1986.

    Merle followed this album with a live recording released in mid-1981 “Rainbow Stew/Live At Anaheim,” and then capped off his MCA career with the inspirational album “Songs For The Mama That Tried” later that year. Both have been re-released as budget CD’s, the latter retitled “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” (MCAD-20787) with a rearranged track lineup and one less song. “Keep On The Sunny Side” was omitted from the 1994 CD reissue.

  4. Pingback: Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘The Way I Am’ | My Kind of Country

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