My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Kern River’

KernrivermerlehaggardMerle Haggard released Kern River on Epic Records in 1985. The album was produced by Grady Martin and marked his third LP for the label.

The only single from the album is the self-penned title track, which peaked at #10. The song, although highly repetitive, is a brilliant piece of songwriting. The story entails a man’s grief over the drowning of his true love in the river where they first met. Emmylou Harris had the good sense to reprise the tune twenty-eight years later on All I Intended To Be. Her haunting version is incredible and benefits from an added depth Haggard only hinted at.

Besides the classic title track, Kern River is also known for its slew of covers and other Haggard goodies. He adds a distinctive horn element to “Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You,” a chart topper for Dolly Parton five years earlier. He remains faithful to Parton’s version despite the added sonic texture. His version of Eddie Rabbitt’s “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” is far superior to the original and far more country. “Big Butter and Egg Man” is a pleasant version of the Jazz standard complete with some rather excellent piano frills throughout.

Those other goodies include tracks that previously appeared on other Haggard projects. “Natural High” makes its second appearance on a Haggard album in two years. This is the single version, that hit #1, with Janie Fricke on harmonies. “I Wonder Where I’ll Find You At Tonight” first surfaced in 1972, with classic production from the era. This version is an updated mid-tempo honky-tonker that proves both recordings are equally excellent. The mournful ballad “There’s Somebody Else On Your Mind” is the third and final track on Kern River Haggard had a hand in writing.

“There, I’ve said It Again” benefits from rather charming fiddle but not much else production-wise. “Ridin’ High” and “There Won’t Be Another Now” are typical-of-their-era ballads that are good, but nothing too memorable. “Old Watermill” is an excellent up-tempo number that perfectly bookends the album.

Listening to Kern River I can clearly hear the vocal similarities between Haggard and Clint Black, who would explode on the charts just five years later. It’s a very good album with some excellent material that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s overloaded with a few too many ballads, but that’s only a slight criticism. I highly recommend seeking out a copy.

Grade: A

One response to “Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Kern River’

  1. Ken May 17, 2016 at 3:02 pm

    Merle’s only new studio album for 1985 offered some brand new tunes mixed with a few old ones. Merle’s personal problems and melancholy outlook during that era was clearly reflected in his choice of material.

    On its own merit “Kern River” is a great story song with superb imagery. But in the context of the other singles that were hits on the country charts in mid-1985 it was clearly not the best choice. The plodding tempo and sparse accompaniment limited its success to a one week stay at #10 before rapidly descending the survey. It was a far better song that that number indicates.

    “Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You” was disappointing. Too bad Haggard didn’t try to do something more unique with the song. To me the droning saxophone became tedious very quickly. If he had taken a cue from the original 1978 version by Joe Sun he could have created a much more memorable performance.

    Although it shares the same title with a 1978 Eddie Rabbitt hit, “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” is an entirely different song. Freddie Powers penned this one. The song is quite good despite the odd intro that begins at a very low level then slowly fades up. They were obviously attempting to achieve some type of mood or effect though I’m at a loss to explain what.

    “Natural High” was added to this album although it had already been issued on his previous LP “It’s All In The Game.” The “Natural High” single and the “Kern River” album were released one week apart in March 1985. Epic did not want to have a new Haggard album on the market without a companion single release so the song was included as an 11th track. Turns out it was a good call as “Natural High” did not peak at #1 until early June.

    “Big Butter And Egg Man” is one of the high points of this collection. The arrangement allows Hag to showcase his band and they took full advantage of the opportunity. This song was a 1927 hit for Louis Armstrong. The title is a slang term from that time period for a guy that spent cash freely in nightclubs and on the ladies. Haggard and the Strangers are obviously having a great time.

    “There’s Somebody Else On Your Mind“ is a solid Haggard song that perhaps reflects his ongoing mid-life crisis. My impression is that he woman in the song is leaving him for a younger man.

    “The Old Watermill” was a 1936 recording by Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies. The original title is “An Old Watermill By A Waterfall. Haggard’s arrangement is closer to a late 1940’s recording of the song by Bob Wills. It provides another great showcase for The Strangers band.

    Just prior to his passing Haggard revisited Kern River one last time. His family has released what is said to be his final recording “Kern River Blues.” Merle’s spirit is willing though his voice is weak.

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