My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘The Way I Am’

the way i amThe first Merle Haggard album of the 1980s was released in April 1980. Production duties were shared by Fuzzy Owen, Don Gant and country legend Porter Wagoner. It is half an unofficial Ernest Tubb tribute album, and half new songs from the Haggard household.

The only song not to fall into one of these categories is title track, penned by Sonny Throckmorton. This was the only single, and it did pretty well, peaking at #2. It’s a rather relaxed, accepting look at life which is pleasantly mellow.

Merle included four of his own songs. ‘Sky-Bo’ is a slightly awkward re-imagining of his early hobo persona for the jet age. It’s enjoyable musically, but doesn’t really work lyrically – and certainly doesn’t hold up in the age of massive security checks. ‘No One To Sing For (But The Band)’ is much better, a half-ironic song about loneliness and loss, with a relaxed jazzy arrangement and a melancholic undertow. The delicately sad ‘Life’s Just Not The Way It Used To Be’ has a tasteful steel intro and is excellent. ‘Wake Up’ is a plea to a loved one who has possibly just died:

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

Haggard was married at this time to Leona Williams, and he cut one of her songs, ‘Where Have You Been’, a call to work at friendship.

One of Hag’s major vocal influences was Ernest Tubb, and one wonders why Merle never got around to a dedicated tribute album . This is as close as he got, with three songs written by Tubb, and two more which he had recorded. The three written by Tubb are given very faithful cover versions. ‘Take Me Back And Try Me One More Time’ is my favourite, but ‘It’s Been So Long Darling’ and ‘I’ll Always Be Glad To Take You Back’ are also very good. The Floyd Tillman penned country standard ‘It Makes No Difference Now’ suits Merle perfectly. Stuart Hamblen was best known for his religious songs, but ‘Remember Me (I’m The One Who Loves You)’ is a secular tune, and Merle gives it a jazzy treatment.

Just six months later, Haggard released the magnificent Back To The Barrooms, which we reviewed last time we looked at Merle, and that record has rather overshadowed this one. It turns out to be something of an overlooked gem, although its pleasures lean to the subtle without obvious potential hit singles.

Grade: A

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3 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘The Way I Am’

  1. Ken May 3, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    Out of Merle’s eight original MCA albums I’ve listened to this one more than any other. Merle’s was in exceptionally good voice for these sessions and the backing tracks were razor sharp. He also included five classic songs – a nice surprise indeed given the ultra contemporary direction that a lot of country music was taking at the time.

    My greatest memory of this album is a cassette version that I played in my truck for most of the spring & summer of 1980. The title track was my favorite as I’ve always been a fan of creative steel guitar licks. Haggard’s subtle vocal inflections made this song a musical masterpiece. Unfortunately the single stalled at #2 for two weeks denied the top spot by forgettable “contemporary” sounding singles by Eddie Rabbitt & Dolly Parton. Also working against its upward progress was a brand new Merle Haggard/Clint Eastwood duet single. “Bar Room Buddies” debuted the first week that “The Way I Am” rose to #2 thereby diluting some airplay. To some extent Haggard was competing with himself.

    The flip side of “The Way I Am” single “Wake Up” was my second favorite track. Kicked off by an unusual 45 second instrumental intro it became part of Merle’s concert set list during the 1980’s. The song about realizing that his lover’s flame may have burned out once and for all proved that Haggard’s creative abilities had not dimmed. The simple but moving lyrics were likely inspired by his already rocky marriage to Leona Williams. Haggard revealed in an interview that track was actually produced and arranged by Leona Williams & Bonnie Owens although they received no label credit. “No One To Sing For But The Band” is another introspective song with a great arrangement including a sparkling steel guitar break and muted trumpets in the chorus. That song gained additional life released as the flip side to Haggard’s next MCA single “Misery And Gin” during the early summer of 1980.

    I loved it whenever Haggard resurrected vintage songs and he really picked some good ‘uns for this album. The Ernest Tubb tunes are especially well done including his E.T. vocal inflections on “Take Me Back And Try Me One More Time.” You can hear the reverence in Haggard’s voice for all of the remakes. Clearly these songs meant something to him.

    “Sky-bo” is agreeably the weakest track lyrically although I agree with Hope that the Cajun styled arrangement is pretty darn catchy.

    Unlike most of Haggard’s other MCA albums this one has remained available on CD. Both new and used copies are available. You can also purchase it as a digital download.

    My 36 year relationship with this album earns it an A+

  2. Razor X May 3, 2016 at 1:50 pm

    This is one that I somehow missed over the years. It’s a real treat getting to hear “new” material from Merle while he was still in peak vocal form.

  3. Paul W Dennis May 4, 2016 at 12:31 am

    Definitely my favorite MCA album from Haggard and actually one of my favorites, period

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