My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dean Holloway

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘That’s the Way Love Goes’

51f3QpNJP2L._SS280The early 1980s were a prolific time for Merle Haggard. The beginning of the new decade saw him releasing two new albums for MCA and then fulfilling his contract for the label with a live album and a Gospel collection before signing with Epic in 1981. Then over the next two years he released two regular solo albums, a Christmas album and duet albums with both George Jones and Willie Nelson. 1983’s That’s the Way Love Goes was his third (excluding the Christmas collection) solo album for Epic and his sixth album overall for the label.

Hag co-produced the album with Ray Baker. Never one to follow trends, Haggard had avoided the era’s propensity towards overproduction. That’s the Way Love Goes is a collection of ten laid-back ballads, the type of album that would not gain any traction at radio today, if it even managed to get made at all. It wasn’t exactly in sync with the commercial tastes of its time, either; the production is tastefully understated throughout. It did however, perform quite well commercially, spawning three hit singles, two of which were chart-toppers. The album also marked the beginning a mellowing of Merle’s sound and he began experimenting with adding horns and saxophones to the mix, something that would characterize his music for the remainder of the decade.

Commercially Haggard was riding high, but he was entering an era that would be very dark for him personally, involving both marital and substance abuse problems. His rocky marriage to Leona Williams finally ended that year, and it seems to have been foreshadowed in a few of the album’s songs, particularly the bleak and introspective lead single “What Am I Gonna Do (With the Rest of My Life)”, a self-penned number that landed at #3. He also penned “Someday When Things Are Good” with his soon-to-be ex-wife Leona. The #1 hit finds him contemplating walking out on his marriage, but unable to find the right time to do it.

Sandwiched in between these two hits is a remake of “That’s the Way Love Goes”, a Lefty Frizzell and Sanger D. Shafer composition that had been a #1hit for Johnny Rodriguez in 1973. Hag also took the tune to the top of the charts and it remains one of my favorites of his recordings from this era.

There are no uptempo songs on this album and for that reason some may find it a bit difficult to listen to all the way through. However, they are all well done and for the most part they have aged well with the possible exception of Red Lane’s “Carryin’ Fire”, which has a dated-sounding keyboard intro. “The Last Boat of the Day”, also penned by Lane with Hank Cochran has a subtle Calypso feel to it and is a bit of an artistic stretch for Merle. Beach songs were not yet a staple of mainstream country and this one stands head and shoulders over almost ever contemporary example I can think of.

Merle had a hand in writing all of the remaining songs on the album. I particularly liked “(I’m Gonna Paint Me) A Bed of Roses”, which finds him trying to make the best of things after a break-up. It has a radio-friendly feel and might have been a hit, but it was highly unusual to release more than three singles from an album in those days. “Don’t Seem Like We’ve Been Together All Our Lives” is about a long-term relationship that is still going well — decidedly at odds with Merle’s real-life situation at the time. “If You Hated Me” is possibly semi-autobiographical, a song in which he questions how bad things would have been if his wife had hated him, considering how badly she treated him when she supposedly loved him. I like this one a lot. Red Lane and Dean Holloway were the co-writers. The album closer “I Think I’ll Stay” is a bluesy number that close with an extended jam session.

Overall, That’s the Way Love Goes is very good, but it does not quite rise to the level of Big City and Going Where the Lonely Go. It is not great but it is very good and worth investigating.

Grade: B+

Album Review – Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson – ‘Pancho and Lefty’

Released in January 1983, Pancho and Lefty was one of the biggest selling albums of that year. Commenter Ken Johnson provided some details on the recording of this album, which can be read here. The album featured two singles, “Reason To Quit” and the title track. Pancho and Lefty was nominated for Album of the Year by the CMA, but lost to Alabama’s The Closer You Get.

Lead single “Reason To Quit,” a mid-tempo honky-tonk shuffle, was solely written by Haggard. It peaked just outside the top 5 and featured Haggard and Nelson trading off on vocals. The song tells the story of two young men who are “rolling down the fast lane” where the reason to quit “gets bigger each day.”

Looking back now, it’s funny to hear Haggard and Nelson facing their demons in song. I especially enjoy the line where Willie sings about not being able to afford his habit, like that ever stopped him from his marijuana addiction. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the song works, but the vocal performances weren’t very engaging. They sound fine when singing a part but their voices don’t seem to blend that well together here.

The same can’t be said for the title track, which ranks among my favorite country songs of all time. Originally recorded by its writer Townes Van Zandt in the early 1970s and then Emmylou Harris on her Luxury Liner album, it’s this duet between Nelson and Haggard where this song finally received its due. I love the expertly crafted story and the guitar riffs that open this song. The gentle and easy-going production helps this song age better over time than most of this album.

I grew up with both my grandfather and parents loving “Pancho and Lefty” so I got really turned on to it as a kid. While the interplay by Nelson and Haggard is missing here as Nelson takes the lead, that choice in crafting this a non-traditional duet never bothered me. I’ve always enjoyed when Haggard kicks in on the third verse, and the music video only furthered the legendary status of this song. I’ve been an unabashed fan for as long as I can recall and my love and appreciation of this song has only deepened overtime.

I can’t say the same for the rest of this album. From 2011 ears, this almost thirty-year-old album hasn’t aged well which is a shame considering the talent that created it. While the production is kept understated and traditional in nature, it doesn’t keep songs like “It’s my Lazy Day” and “My Mary” from coming off a bit cheesy. The former suffers from an attempt to come off light and breezy while the latter sounds foolish coming from Haggard. The way he gushes about Mary like a fetish object underscores Haggard’s talent for honest and hard-hitting country music.

Thankfully, “Half A Man” and “No Reason To Quit” see the album turning around and Haggard restoring the faith that he hadn’t resorted to keeping his career alive through material a notch below sub-par. The Nelson pinned “Half A Man” is the result of a bad relationship in which the man is now only “half a man” that “you made of me.” It’s a strong tale about the pieces left when relationships are over and features a nicely understated production of piano, drums, guitar, and flourishes of fiddle. And “No Reason To Quit,” a better song than the single “Reason to Quit,” finds Haggard lamenting about his drinking habits saying he could quit tomorrow but has no reason too. The blunt honesty that trademarked his best work is on full display here and the production matches that of “Half A Man” – the perfect amount of softness to allow Haggard ample ability to convey the lyrics, which were composed by Dean Holloway, who co-wrote “Big City” with him.

“Still Water Runs The Deepest” acts as a change of pace for the album, previously heavy on Haggard singing lead, this finds Nelson at the helm. Along with the change in vocalists comes an up kick in energy brought by Nelson to the track. Written by Jesse Ashlock, it’s a familiar tale of an ending relationship – the woman has done the man wrong and the couple has been together for too long. I also love the production on this song. The lead guitar gives it an almost Spanish vibe that I really dig.

“My Life’s Been a Pleasure” continues the change of pace through a very unique fiddle solo that helps the track stand out from the rest of the album even though it isn’t dramatically different in lyric or texture from anything else in the set. Also written by Ashlock, it’s a positive spin on love where life was enhanced because of the relationship, not beaten down by it.

Haggard’s wife Leona Williams composed “All The Soft Places to Fall,” and it’s a classic Haggard-type song. A true duet, it features a nice interplay between Haggard and Nelson and understated production that helps sell the lyrics. It’s one of my favorite songs on the whole project and grabbed me from the beginning. I like it because it feels like a return to form for the duo who are at home on a song in this vein.

Pancho and Lefty closes with “Opportunity to Cry,” a typical Nelson-style ballad he also wrote. I can’t muster up enthusiasm for the song because it’s too maudlin for my tastes. Nelson does what he does best here, but I’ve heard this kind of thing before, and don’t really get excited about hearing it again.

As an overall album, Pancho and Lefty is hit-or-miss with me. There were far too many places where the production, while understated and traditional, aged very poorly. On the strength of the title song I can see where this album garnered the love it received in 1983, but this just isn’t my type of thing. Too many ballads wore down this project and there wasn’t much I could be excited about.

The album was re-issued in 2003 with two extra tracks, an alternate take on “Half A Man” and the new song “My Own Peculiar Way.” The “Half A Man” reprise doesn’t offer much to differ from the original and “My Own Peculiar Way” is indicative of the rest of the album and features Nelson singing lead.

Pancho and Lefty is available in both hard and digital copy from Amazon and on iTunes .

Grade: B-

Album Review – Merle Haggard – ‘Big City’ / ‘Goin’ Where The Lonely Go’

Recorded in July 1981 and released that October, Big City was created during a two-day recording session producing enough material to span this and his follow-up Going Where The Lonely Go, released a little more than a year later in 1982. Both projects were successful and charted four number one country hits between them. Big City, Haggard’s debut for Epic Records, would also go on to a Gold certification from the RIAA.

Big City primarily dealt with the plight of Urban America through tales of the workingman. Lead single “My Favorite Memory,” a love song of sorts, became Haggard’s 25 number one single in the fall of 1981. It stands out due to its understated production and confident vocal performance. I’m enjoying the directness of the lyrics here; Haggard is never one to mince words. The way he sings so openly about sex only makes the narrow-mindedness of today’s country radio more apparent. It’s a shame that such a great song would probably be deemed too risqué today.

Second single and title track “Big City” also topped the charts becoming Haggard’s 26th number one hit.  Drenched in the best of honky-tonk fiddle and steel guitar and Written by Haggard with Dean Holloway, “Big City” drives home the theme of dealing with the struggles faced by honest workingmen. Haggard is making a simple request here – he wants the big city to turn him loose and set him free; more specifically to Montana where he’d be free to have some fun like the rich get to do. He also bluntly tells his boss to keep his retirement and “so called social security,” since he only wants what’s coming to him. Like “Memory,” it’s the direct honesty from both the lyrics and Haggard’s vocal that draws me into the song.

“Are The Good Times Really Over (I Wish A Buck was still Silver)” just missed the top spot, peaking at number 2 in the summer of 1982. Despite just missing the top, the track, written solely by Haggard, would go on to win the ACM Award for Song of the year in 1983. The only ballad released a single, “Good Times” is a companion single of sorts to “Big City.” If Haggard is pondering the good life in “City” he’s now wondering where it’s all gone. Haggard has grown mournful as he wishes Ford and Chevy automobiles still lasted ten years before wearing out and coke was still good ‘ol cola and joints were only bad places to be. Like all great vocalists, Haggard doesn’t just sing but rather conveys his message with all the pain he can muster. But what I really love about “Good Times” is how brilliantly Haggard was able to create a conversation with the listener. This isn’t just another country song but rather a document of where our country was in 1981. I’ve always said the best country songs portray the consciousness of America and this is what I’m talking about. Only a few such songs have surfaced since and the only one truly able to match this legacy is Ronnie Dunn’s latest single “Cost of Livin.’”

Like the hit singles, the rest of Big City is just as powerful. “Good Ole American Guest” continues Haggard’s love affair with trains, this time with a western swing-y arrangement. “I Think I’m Gonna Live Forever” has a terrific blues guitar and drum solo that sound surprisingly refreshing after all these years. While “Stop The World and Let me off” is an often-covered standard done most recently by Rhonda Vincent in 2009.  I also love the delightful “Texas Fiddle Song” which brings a core country instrument front and center.

But it’s “This Song is mine” that stopped me in my tracks. Why this track never became a classic is beyond me. I love how Haggard so honestly sings about how he’s stolen words and melodies before, but this song is all his. I’ve never heard a song talk so introspectively before about the art of songwriting like Haggard does here. The light drums and string section also do their job of nicely underscoring Haggard’s plainspoken vocal.

“You don’t have Very Far to Go” finds Haggard taking the most chances vocally as he puts some power behind his voice, while “I Always Get Lucky with You” is a classic torch ballad, done frequently in the early 1980s. Both are excellent additions to Haggard’s ever-growing catalog of outstanding material.

The rest of the songs from the two-day recording session comprise Goin’ Where The Lonely Go released in November 1982. Like it’s predecessor, Lonely also produced two number one hits.

The title track was issued as the first single, 29 years ago this week. “Goin’ Where The Lonely Go” remains one of Haggard’s most recognizable hits and a highlight from this period in his recording career. Led by his deep and haunting vocal, the track is made even spookier by the flourishes of piano heard throughout. It’s a masterful vocal from Haggard but we expected nothing less from him at this point. I love how the drum work actually seems to have purpose opposed to just having to be there.

The second and final single “You take me for Granted” was written by his then-wife Leona Williams. Another mournful ballad, it finds Haggard doing what he does best – traditionally arranged and well-sung country music. It’s another fine moment albeit not a favorite of mine though, it sounds too much like a few of his other hits in this vein.

But there’s more to the album than just the two singles. “Why Am I Drinkin’” is a classic barroom thumper, which has Haggard backed by a bouncy steel guitar and asking why he has to hurt this way. The track is dated – the female backup chorus is cheesy and distracting but it does play up the barroom vibe. “If I Left it up to You” finds a man willing to work on his relationship even though she’d rather not, and “For All I Know” finds Haggard playing a man unable to trust his lady love.

Listening to Going Where The Lonely Go is an experience that, for me, comes up short. Nothing beyond the excellent title track is really anything extraordinary and in the wake of Big City this album is a let down. Since they were both recorded during the same session one would assume equal quality but that isn’t the case. There isn’t anything wrong with Lonely but it greatly pales in comparison when placed against the stellar Big City.

Big City and Going Where The Lonely Go are both available from Amazon as a 2-for-1 import released this year. For the budget conscious, they are available separately from Amazon and iTunes in both hard and digital copy.

Big City: A

Going Where The Lonely Go: B