My Kind of Country

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

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘1996’

MI0000090327-1Merle Haggard’s tenure with Curb came to an end with the release of 1996. While on the surface, this album had the same austere packaging as 1994, the reality is that the packaging was much more elaborate including liner note and full song lyrics. Unfortunately Curb did less than nothing to promote the album.

As for the music inside, 1996 contained many fine songs although proved to be the first Merle Haggard album not to chart. Haggard’s sound becomes a little more jazz-oriented than the earlier Curb albums and there are some guests to liven up the proceedings.

The album opens with “Sin City Blues” written by Merle, Joe Manuel and Merle’s last wife Theresa. The track has a boisterous honky-tonk blues arrangement somewhat reminiscent of “Living With The Shades Pulled Down’).

Next up is the Iris Dement composition “No Time To Cry” a stoic look at some of the problems associated with growing older. Iris plays piano on this track.

My father died a year ago today.

The rooster started crowing when they carried Dad away.

There beside my mother, in the living room, I stood,

With my brothers and my sisters, knowing Dad was gone for good.
Well, I stayed at home just long enough,

To lay him in the ground and then I,

Caught a plane to do a show up north in Detroit town.

Because I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry.

Next up is “Beer Can Hill”, a Haggard & Abe Manuel collaboration about growing up and honky-tonkin’ in Bakersfield. Merle is joined by Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Bob Teague on this track, with Dawn Sears adding harmony vocals.

Well, I learned how to walk and I learned how to run in Bakersfield

Should’ve done time over things I’d done in Bakersfield

I tasted my first taste of romance in Bakersfield

I learned how to fight and I learned how to dance in Bakersfield
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Overlookin’ Bakersfield

Remembering my first thrill
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Merle’s “Truck Drivers’ Blues” is a pretty standard county blues about the men who drive trucks for a living whereas Merle’s “Too Many Highways” deals with the choices a trucker and his family make – his choice of career and his wife’s choice to stick with him

Too many highways
Too many byways
Too many canyons
And too many turns
Too many bright lights
Too many long nights
And she’s one bridge I don’t want to burn.

“Five Days a Week” is Merle retelling the story he told in an earlier song “Working Man Blues”. It is a good song, but hardly essential.

“Kids Get Lonesome Too” sounds like it’s a song about kids but Haggard and co-writer Lou Bradley have something additional in mind, with the song’s narrator actually directing the song at his girlfriend or wife.

Merle and ex-wife Bonnie Owens collaborated on “If Anyone Ought to Know”, an older song from 1976 revived on this album. I cannot recall if Merle recorded this earlier, but I do regard this as good album filler.

“Untanglin’ My Mind” is a Merle Haggard song that Clint Black partially rewrote before recording it and taking it to #4. Clint’s lyric changes really neither added nor subtracted from the song’s merits. It’s a very good song. Haggard assisted Johnny Paycheck on his classic album Mr. Hag Told My Story. Here, Mr. Paycheck returns the favor:

And I’m sure no one will wonder where I’ve gone to,
But if anyone should ask from time to time
Tell ’em that you finally drove me crazy,
And I’m somewhere untanglin’ my mind.

And for what it’s worth I prefer Haggard’s recording to that of Clint Black .

The album ends with the very philosophical “Winds of Change”, Haggard’s most environmentally conscious song. Merle is assisted by John (“Seminole Wind”) Anderson on this song.

With my ears I have heard the eagle call my name
He flew in from the night to talk to me
We talked about his freedom and he spoke with great concern
He said, “Mother earth is aging rapidly”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing
And the land is disappearing more each day
Farewell my son, I must be going”
He turned and then forever flew away

With my eyes I have seen pretty mountain streams
Change from crystal clear to factory brown
The old bear shook his herd and through his eyes
He said, “I guess there’s no more salmon to be found”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing”
Telling me that I can’t stay
Farewell my friend, I must be going
He turned and then forever walked away

I’ve lived in the land where the wolf mistrusted me
He taught me that the stronger shall survive
Even in our world today, the weaker are the prey
And if we don’t fight for our planet she will die

And the winds of change keep blowing
Yet we turn the other way
If we don’t stop the wrong we’re doing
Then mother earth will surely pass away

This wouldn’t qualify as one of Merle’s fifteen or twenty best albums, but it is a very good album, with perceptive lyrics, excellent guest artists and solid instrumentation. I can’t decide whether or not this is a A- or a B+, but in memory of Merle’s recent passing I’ll go with the A-.

17 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘1996’

  1. luckyoldsun May 31, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    The lyrics are pretty near the same, but to the extent that they’re different, I thought Clint Black’s version of “Untangling My Mind” was a bit sharper and crisper than Merle’s. I’d have guessed that this song was #1 hit for Clint–It wasn’t, but I’d put it in his top 10 or top dozen songs of his career.
    I got the impression that Hag bore some resentment to Clint over his recording of the song. I don’t know why, since Merle was already gone from radio when Clint did the song. It’s not like Clint’s version is what stopped Merle from having the hit with it.

  2. Paul W Dennis May 31, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    I think Haggard resented Black stealing a co-writer credit for making such a minimal change in his lyrics. That, and I don’t think Haggard’s lyrics needed to be rewritten. Clint was notorious for only recording songs that he wrote or co-wrote in order to get the songwriting royalties. In the early years Clint has a backlog of good songs available but in later years his albums suffered for the amount of filler included that was just there as a royalties grab

    Back in 1989 Clint Black roared out of the box faster than did Garth Brooks, but Garth was willing to use good material from whatever the source

    • Razor X June 1, 2016 at 8:52 am

      Wouldn’t Haggard have had to grant permission for the lyric to be changed in the first place? I wasn’t aware of the backstory, but I prefer Clint’s version.

      • Paul W Dennis June 1, 2016 at 11:20 am

        I don’t think Clint needed Merle’s permission, just as Duke Ellington’s permission was not needed to append lyrics to his musical compositions

        • Razor X June 2, 2016 at 11:58 am

          If it was copyrighted to Haggard, then surely no one else could modify it and add their name as a co-writer without permission of the copyright holder?

  3. luckyoldsun June 1, 2016 at 7:12 pm

    Haggard and Clint collaborated on the song. Clint is listed as the co-writer on Haggard’s recording. He didn’t just take a Haggard song and change four words.
    In any event, when a song is new, you need permission to make the first record of it. They have a “hold” system where a (usually-prominent) artist who’s been pitched a song and wants to record it can put it on hold (and stop anyone else from touching it) until he’s ready to cut it. Occasionally, it seems to break down, as when Garth and Mark Chesnutt both cut “Friends In Low Places” at around the same time. (I think they both claimed to have put a hold on it first.)
    Once a song has been recorded and issued and has been out for some time, anyone can record it. They just have to pay royalties.

    I don’t know if artists generally ask for permission if they’re just changing a word or two in someone’s song. Guy Clark tended to like to use the word “bitch” in every other song he did (or so it seemed), but it only worked for him! In “Heartbroke,” he wrote: “Pride is a b*tch and a bore when you’re lonely.” When George Strait recorded it, he changed it to “Pride is a drag and a bore when you’re lonely.” And Ricky Skaggs (who had the hit) made it “Pride when you’re rich is a bore if you’re lonely.” I don’t know if they discussed it with Guy. Lol.

  4. Paul W Dennis June 1, 2016 at 11:16 pm

    Haggard wrote the song several years before he recorded it. I remember Haggard being interviewed on television and he inferred that it was an already completed song that Clint Black modified, rather than a real co-write. Maybe Ken Johnson remembers the interview and can find it somewhere

    • luckyoldsun June 3, 2016 at 10:39 am

      Many top artists–and Haggard is Exhibit “A”– say so many contradictory things from one day to the next that I wouldn’t consider one extemporaneous interview to be the be-all, end-all. Heck, when Merle died, the obituaries in some liberal publications claimed that in his later years, Hag had renounced “Okie From Muskogee”–and they cherry-picked some quotes to suggest that. Of course, one could just as well find a bunch of quotes suggesting the opposite.
      Clint Black is not known for stealing song credits–and it stands to reason that if Merle thought that he had a complete song in “Untangling My Mind,” he would not have given it to Clint to work on. In any event when artists and writers collaborate on something–especially something that becomes a hit–they usually just celebrate it. It’s bad form to gripe about fellow artists in public.

      • Ken June 3, 2016 at 12:25 pm

        Once again you’re wrong. Regarding Merle’s politics – if you actually followed his career over the past 50 years you would see that his political views consistently changed. As early as 1971 he wrote and recorded a song titled “Somewhere In Between” that underscored the fact that he did not feel that his views were exclusively within the realm of one political party. In more recent years Haggard voiced strong libertarian opinions. He wrote a song about rebuilding “America First” and also one about Hillary Clinton “Let’s Put Woman In Charge” with an implied endorsement of her 2008 Presidential bid. Merle frequently stated that his views were subject to change and they did.

    • Ken June 3, 2016 at 10:54 am

      The genesis of “Untanglin’ My Mind” dates back to when the two stars toured together on Clint’s first headline tour circa 1991. Any assertion that there was some type of adversarial relationship between Black and Haggard could not be further from the truth. In fact Clint was a HUGE fan of Merle Haggard. So much so that Clint’s vocal style drew frequent comparison to Haggard. In most bios citing Clint’s musical influences the first name listed is MERLE HAGGARD. Clint was absolutely thrilled to have Merle featured on his first headline tour package and reflected upon that in a recent Rolling Stone article after Merle’s passing:

      “I was lucky to have him [Merle] as a special guest on my first headline tour and got to know my biggest musical hero up close,” says Black. “It was a magical. He and I had a lot of hang time on my bus, which was too big a deal to have even been imagined for a bucket list. He was generous with the stories from his life and I could’ve sat across from him and listened for hours. . . There are no words to describe what his music and the time I had with him meant to me.”

      Clint’s Twitter posting after Haggard’s passing:

      “We’ve lost a giant. No words for what @merlehaggard’s music meant to me. I know his mind is now untangled forever.”

      Here’s a video with Clint describing the two songs that he collaborated on with Merle – “Untanglin’ My Mind” and “The Kid” (from his Christmas album)

      At a rather low point in Haggard’s career when sales of his new albums were incremental, most of his back catalog of albums had not been reissued on CD (which meant fewer royalties) and his own recordings – both new and old – had all but vanished from radio playlists (meaning that he received few broadcast royalties) the opportunity to have a song that he co-wrote recorded by one of the hottest acts in country music at the time was huge. When released as a single that collaboration generated substantial revenue from two streams – CD/cassette sales and broadcast royalties. Haggard was likely thrilled with that scenario given his dire financial situation during that era.

      As usual luckyoldsun once again proves that he knows little about the recording industry or most other facets of the music business. First of all licensing from a song’s publisher or controlling entity must be obtained to legally RELEASE any song. However approval is generally NOT necessary to RECORD a song except in the case of “right of first use.” In situation money might be wasted on a recording session for a song that cannot be released however the actual RECORDING of the song is not prohibited. A finished recording of a previously released song is necessary to apply for the mechanical license. Also modifying lyrics or other song content requires the approval of the copyright holder. The rules are far more complex than luckyoldsun’s overly simplistic and inaccurate speculation. Here is an outline of the process but be aware that there are additional issues beyond this brief summary concerning this topic:

      • luckyoldsun June 3, 2016 at 8:33 pm

        You haven’t meaningfully contradicted anything I wrote, but thanks for the further elaboration and your always kind words.

        • Ken June 4, 2016 at 8:26 pm

          Your comment in the first post stated: “I got the impression that Hag bore some resentment to Clint over his recording of the song.” That is untrue.

  5. luckyoldsun June 5, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Well then you really ought to take that up with Paul. He’s much more adamant about that particular point than I was–and he’s advanced the theory that Clint essentially stole the song from Merle. I was dubious about that from the outset.

    • Ken June 5, 2016 at 3:21 pm

      You apparently were not at all “dubious about that” because YOU were the first one to bring it up. It’s a continuation of your pattern of manufacturing scenarios about things that you know nothing about. You look for tabloid type conflicts in everything. You seem to believe that there’s a nefarious aspect to every event that ever occurs in the music industry. Your comments replying to the posts on this site have a constant thread of negativity. I have lost count of how many pieces of misinformation that you have posted here (and on other sites). It’s one thing to offer an honest opinion but quite another to “invent” facts to support your off-base contentions.

      • luckyoldsun June 5, 2016 at 10:27 pm

        You really had to dig deep into my comment to find the one sentence that you deemed to be “negative.” Thanks for following me so closely. And thanks, too, for so diligently protecting anyone who was endangered by it.

        • Ken June 6, 2016 at 8:48 am

          No digging required. It was clearly apparent and formed the basis for most of the discussions that followed.

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