Out Among the Stars was Merle Haggard’s second album release of 1986. It was arguably the least successful album of his Epic years, and holds the dubious distinction of being only one of two albums from that era (the other being 1985’s live album Amber Waves of Grain) that failed to produce any Top 10 hits.
Readers who have been following our coverage this month will have noticed a shift in Merle’s sound; this phase of his career was very heavy on ballads and he’d begun to incorporate more jazz elements and instrumentation — including saxophone and horns — into his music. Out Among the Stars is largely a (temporary) reversal of that trend, for the simple reason that the majority of the tracks had been recorded several years earlier while Haggard was signed to MCA. Apparently CBS (then the parent company of Epic Records) was concerned that Merle’s former label would begin mining their vaults and releasing singles which would then be in direct competition with his current output for radio airplay. As a pre-emptive move, CBS bought the rights to several of Merle’s unreleased MCA recordings. Songs purchased from that arrangement make up the majority of the tracks on Out Among the Stars; only three tunes — the title track, “The Show’s Almost Over” and a remake of the old David Houston hit “Almost Persuaded” — were new recordings for this project.
Out Among the Stars is the product of no less than five producers, including Merle himself, and it comes as no surprise that an album comprised mostly of outtakes from recording sessions over a long period of time, is a somewhat incohesive and uneven affair. CBS’ concerns about competition from these tracks seems largely unfounded; while none of them are bad, they are in no way in the same league as Haggard’s best output, and that is likely the reason they had shelved in the first place.
The title track was the first of the album’s two singles. Written by Adam Mitchell, it was somewhat of a departure for Haggard. The production was more contemporary for the era, relying more on keyboards and vocal choruses and less on the Telecaster, fiddle and steel. The story of an angry and economically disadvantaged young man who dies during a botched robbery attempt may have been too heavy for radio; it peaked at #21, becoming one of a very few Haggard singles that did not at least crack the Top 20. The production is bit dated today, but sadly the lyrics sound as though they could have been ripped from today’s headlines. The second single fared even worse. “Almost Persuaded” had been a monster hit for David Houston twenty years earlier. Its co-writer and original producer Billy Sherrill also produced the Haggard version. Merle does a great job with the song, but the song had been recorded by many people over the years, and it seems like a strange choice for a single. However, one does have to bear in mind that during the New Traditionalist era, many old chestnuts were dusted off and presented to a new generation of fans by current artists. However, “Almost Persuaded” still has a dated countrypolitan feel to it, particularly with the strings near the end of the song. Radio didn’t embrace it and died at #58.
The rest of the album is a rather mixed bag. It’s pretty easy to pick out to identify the old MCA recordings,like “Love Keeps Hanging On”, “Why Can’t I Cry” and “Love Don’t Hurt Every Time” which have a “Red Bandana” or “My Own Kind of Hat” feel to them — particularly on the electric guitar solos. They are all pleasant to listen to but not particularly memorable. The exceptions are a Dixieland jazz version of “Pennies from Heaven”, “Bleachers” – a Haggard composition about an aging athlete ready to step out of the spotlight — and “Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa”, a Red Lane composition that would later be recorded by Merle’s son Noel, and which would go on to become an almost Top 10 hit (peaking at #11) for George Strait in 2003.
The material on Out Among the Stars may not be among Merle’s best, but every Haggard album is precious, particularly in the wake of his recent death. The album has largely been forgotten so it presents a good opportunity for many fans to hear something “new” from Merle while he was still in peak vocal form.