My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Friend In California’

a friend in californiaAs the neotraditionalists came to prominence in the second half of the 1980s, Haggard seems to have taken something of a contrarian turn, with this sometimes self-indulgent album, his first after the live Amber Waves Of Grain. The songs are almost all either Haggard originals, or from the pen of his friend Freddy Powers, and he produced the album with Ron ‘Snake’ Reynolds.

There were two singles, both making the top 10. The self-penned ‘I Had A Beautiful Time’, which peaked at #5, is excellent, a mid-paced story song about a one night stand. The arrangement is great, with interesting piano and brass elements which don’t overpower the tune, and an invested vocal which make the song catchy despite the moral ambiguity.

It was followed up by the title track, written by Powers which is a bit jazzy for me, and not really very interesting. Also rather heavy on the brass, but a better song, is the regretful jazz-inflected ballad ‘This Time I Really Do’. The country standard ‘This Cold War With You’ is treated in the same vein; the languid vocal works quite well with the lyric, but the instrumentation isn’t to my taste. These three songs open the album, leading me to fear the worst, but ‘I Had A Beautiful Time’ then picked up the mood.

‘The Okie From Muskogee’s Comin’ Home’ feels a little self -referential. Haggard draws on his own life as a touring musician “tired of making love to a telephone”, allied to a very brassy Dixieland jazz arrangement.

The best song on the band is also autobiographical. ‘Mama’s Prayer’ pays tribute to Haggard’s mother’s devotion; it might perhaps be seen as the mirror image of his classic ‘Mama Tried’, because this time mama’s efforts were not in vain:

Back when I was doing time
There’s a night I can’t forget
A madman with a knife in hand
Tried to kill me while I slept
Somehow the knife missed its mark
And I pinned the raging man
Somehow my mama’s prayers had worked again

Mama’s prayers were always with me
Through the battlefields of life
She prayed for me and said amen
In the name of Jesus Christ
From the death house in San Quentin
I walked away a better man
Somehow my mama’s prayers had worked again

‘This Song Is For You’ is a sympathetic look at a waitress whose husband is in prison, while unaware the song’s narrator is in love with her:

You’re here every night
Servin’ our drinks
Wearin’ your superficial smile

You still wear the wedding band
On your left hard workin’ hand
For a memory of a man who’s chained and bound

Lord knows you need a man
And an understandin’ hand
Before you run completely out of love

You can’t stay in love with a memory
You can’t stay in love with a dream
Yet you’ve fallen in love with a picture on the wall
The sad part is the picture’s not of me

That cold December day
They took her man away
Never dreamin’ of a gentle heart they broke

Now she waits by the phone
She waits there all alone
But the only one who ever calls is me
Now I’m a prisoner of a slave to one-way love
I’d wish they let him go so I’d be free
Break this chains that bind and release this heart of mine
Before I run completely out of love

The fiddle is prominent on this excellent song.

Short but sweet, the two-minute long ‘Texas’ is a nice western swing tune. ‘Silverthorn Mountain’ is inspired by the Silverthorn Resort on Lake Shasta, which Merle owned. The lyric is somewhat impenetrable but it sounds nice, with an attractive melody and arangement.

Merle’s then-wife Debbie Parret, who he had married in 1985, gets a co-writing credit on the rather sappy ‘Thank You For Keeping My House’ which closes out the set with more brass.

This isn’t vintage Haggard, but it’s still Merle, so it’s worth giving it a hearing.

Grade: B-

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3 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Friend In California’

  1. luckyoldsun May 14, 2016 at 1:45 am

    The “Okie From Muskogee’s Coming Home,” was something of a throwaway, but its “self referential” nature seems to be in a tradition of country greats revisiting old wells. Two more memorable ones, to my mind:
    The great Hank Snow in the late 1970s came out with “I’m STILL Moving On,” which reworked his classic “I’m Moving On” hit from almost three decades earlier. The later version was an autobiographical survey of his career, from his inspiration Jimmie Rodgers, through his friendship with Hank Williams, all the way to his struggle to stay relevant in the “Outlaw” era.
    “When it’s all disappeared, you’re gonna find me right here still movin’ on!,” Hank boasts.

    Around the same time, the always fascinating Marty Robbins came out with a tribute to his own smash western song “El Paso” from 1960, called “El Paso City.” In the later version, Marty’s a present day traveler jetting into El Paso, who recalls and becomes consumed by the original song while (modestly/disingenuously?”) claiming not to know who sang it! As he delves deeper into the story, present-day Marty decides that he must be the reincarnation of the tragic cowboy who met his violent end in the epic original song. “Could it be that I could be the cowboy in this mystery that died there in that desert sand so long ago?” wonders Marty.

  2. Paul W Dennis May 14, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    Really nice post luckyoldsun. Thanks for finding these .

    Actually “El Paso City” was the second follow-up to El Paso that Marty recorded. I don’t think it was issued as a single but “Feleena” was part of the storyline.

    I really loved Hank Snow’s “I’m Still Movin’ On”, which barely dented the charts in 1977. Unfortunately radio had completely tuned out on the 63 year old snow by then , in fact Hank had only one top twenty song after 1968, the 1974 chart topper “Hello Love” “I’m Still Movin’ On” was co-written with Shel Silverstein and comes off one of my favorite Snow albums titled HANK SNOW #104. Chuck Glaser produced the album and Dolly Parton wrote the liner notes – apparently Hank was her Daddy’s favorite singer. Doesn’t surprise me at all since Hank was my Dad’s favorite, too.

  3. Paul W Dennis May 14, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    Not one of my favorite Merle Haggard albums, but it is still good – I would give it a solid B. I do like jazz and big band swing (and western swing) so hearing the brass and reeds on an album never bothers me I really liked “This Cold War With You” but I am really a big Floyd Tillman fan and can never get enough of his songs

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