My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Debbie Parret

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Chill Factor’

chill factorMerle Haggard turned fifty shortly before Chill Factor was released in October 1987. To those of us who remember when the blues and jazz were still influences on country music (rather than the hip-hop and rock that seem to be today’s influences) this album is an overlooked treasure out of the Merle Haggard catalogue. The album is compromised of eleven songs of which Merle wrote six by himself, with three co-writes and two songs from outside sources.

I’m not sure, but I think this was the first complete Merle Haggard album recorded without longtime Stranger Roy Nichols (1932-2001) on lead guitar. Roy, who was a truly great guitar player, and a quintessential part of the Merle Haggard sound, retired in early 1987 due to health issues.

The album opens with the title track, a solo Haggard composition. “Chill Factor” is a very melancholy song about a down period in the singer’s life. Taken at a slow tempo the song features horns and winds during the last third of the song and comes to a fade ending. “Chill Factor” was the first single from the album and reached #9 on the Billboard country chart:

The long nights get longer
And I wish a friend would come by
The forecast is zero
And the chill factor is high

“Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star”, another Haggard composition, was the second single released from the album. It would prove to be Merle’s final #1 single. A mid-tempo song, the song finds the narrator wishing upon a star.

Like two ships on the ocean
We drifted apart …

Twinkle twinkle lucky star
Can you send me luck from where you are
Can you make a rainbow shine that far
Twinkle twinkle lucky star

“Man From Another Town” is yet another melancholy song, this time from the pens of Haggard and his most frequent co-writer at the time, Freddy Powers, This song reflects on relationship that should not be in that the man is thirty years older than the woman.

The great Hank Cochran wrote “We Never Touch At All”, a song that would have been a #1 record if it had been released twenty years earlier. The song features a 1960s style country accompaniment with excellent steel guitar by longtime Stranger Norm Hamlet. The song was released as the third single from the album and reached #22. The song is about a relationship that is slowly unraveling. I think it is the best song on the album:

Are we afraid we’ll wind up alone
Is this the tie that keeps us hanging on
Why don’t we just stay out
While we can still climb the wall
We hardly ever talk
And we never touch at all

“You Babe” was the fourth and final single pulled from this album, reaching #23. The song is a mid-tempo ballad, full of hope, by a man who has found what was truly important. The comes from the pen of Sanger D “Whitey” Shafer who was a friend and co-writer with Lefty Frizzell:

And if there’s nothin’ else I do
To spend my whole life through
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe
I’ll always be in command
Just as long as I’m the man
Lovin’ you, babe, you babe

“Thanking The Good Lord” is an upbeat and up-tempo written ny Merle and T.A. Lane:

The pieces are all falling together
The picture is coming in view
When I thought the end was upon me
I found my purpose in you

And let the power that made
Help me to prosper and be fair in all things that I do
The love I’ve been needin’ I just found in your heart
And I’m thanking the good Lord for you

I could easily see Leon Redbone recording “After DarK”, a very jazzy and reflective mid-tempo song with some instrumental breaks that give sax and trumpet player Don Markham a chance to stretch out.

Merle’s solo composition “1929” opens up with some nice dobro playing by Norm Hamlet, and the general feel of the instrumental accompaniment sounds like something that the legendary “Blue Yodeler” Jimmie Rodgers (aka “the father of country music” or the “Singing Brakeman”) would have felt perfectly comfortable singing. This song looks to possible bad times ahead. Like many of Jimmie’s songs, some Memphis style horns kick in during the latter part of the song:

All my life I’ve heard about hard depression days
They so resemble times we’re living now
And old news of yesteryear sounds like yesterday
And hunger lines always look the same somehow

Are we living now or is it 1929
A dollar bill ain’t worth one thin dime
And tricks are sometimes played upon the mind
Are we living now or 1929

I can really relate to “Thirty Again”, a slow introspective ballad with a hint of a chuckle in the vocal. Like several of the songs on this album, this song straddles the border between country and jazz.

Similar to the narrator of the song I don’t think I’d care to be a teenager again but thirty sounds like a good age to be.

Youth should be saved for the last
But it’s wasted on the young and fast…

Wish I could be thirty again
Wish time didn’t wrinkle my skin
They say life begins at fifty
We’ve been lied to my friend
And I just wish I could be
Thirty again

The album closes up with a pair of fairly traditional country ballads.

“I Don’t Have Any Love Around” opens with a fiddle and steel guitar introduction and generally keeps the feel of slow traditional country music ballad. I could see this song as a single during the 1950-1975 heyday of the genre.

“More Than This Old Heart Can Take” is a typical barroom crying-in-your-beer song, a solid mid-tempo country ballad with plenty of fiddle and dobro and an ageless story:

You walk into his arms before my very eyes
You can’t even wait to be somewhere alone
The ties that bind have broken loose and I’m about to break
Loving you is more than this old heart can take

There was a place in time when I was always on your mind
And now I’m nothing more than just a fool
I thought that I was strong enough to live with my mistake
But loving you is more than this old heart can take

I mentioned that this was the first full Haggard album to be missing Roy Nichols. In his place we have the great Grady Martin handling much of the lead guitar work. I think Martin’s presence lends itself to the jazzy feel Haggard seemed to be seeking with this album.

As for the album itself, I think that the album accurately reflects the roller coaster ride that Merle was experiencing at the time. He had one marriage (to Leona Williams) break rather acrimoniously, but at the point this album was released, Hag was a relative newlywed having married Debbie Parret in 1985, a marriage that would last until 1991. Like many veteran artists, he was having a hard time getting radio play as the singles from this album would prove. In all, Merle is revealed as being clear-minded and perceptive, with some nostalgic longings, but still firmly rooted in the present . When initially released this album received mixed reviews, (but remember that jazz has always been an anathema to rock audiences – there was even a band calling itself Johnny Hates Jazz) and most music critics had no feel for jazz in any form.

I liked this album when it was initially issued and I like it even more today – I regard it as a solid A.

Merle Haggard – vocals, guitar, background vocals
Biff Adam – drums / Jim Belken – fiddle
Gary Church – trombone / Steve Gibson – guitar
Norm Hamlet – dobro, pedal steel guitar
Jim Haas – background vocals / Jon Joice – background vocals
Bonnie Owens – background vocals
Red Lane – guitar Mike Leech – bass
Don Markham – saxophone, trumpet
Grady Martin – guitar / Clint Strong – guitar
Bobby Wayne – guitar / Mark Yeary – keyboards

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-