The first Merle Haggard album of the 1980s was released in April 1980. Production duties were shared by Fuzzy Owen, Don Gant and country legend Porter Wagoner. It is half an unofficial Ernest Tubb tribute album, and half new songs from the Haggard household.
The only song not to fall into one of these categories is title track, penned by Sonny Throckmorton. This was the only single, and it did pretty well, peaking at #2. It’s a rather relaxed, accepting look at life which is pleasantly mellow.
Merle included four of his own songs. ‘Sky-Bo’ is a slightly awkward re-imagining of his early hobo persona for the jet age. It’s enjoyable musically, but doesn’t really work lyrically – and certainly doesn’t hold up in the age of massive security checks. ‘No One To Sing For (But The Band)’ is much better, a half-ironic song about loneliness and loss, with a relaxed jazzy arrangement and a melancholic undertow. The delicately sad ‘Life’s Just Not The Way It Used To Be’ has a tasteful steel intro and is excellent. ‘Wake Up’ is a plea to a loved one who has possibly just died:
Don’t just lay there like cold granite stone
We’re too close to be alone
Wake up and please, darling, hold me if you would
Don’t just lay there like you’ve gone away for good
There’s too many empty pages with so many things in store
I can’t believe it’s over and you’ve closed the final door
And I’m not prepared to handle these things we’re going through
I wish God would grant me just one more night with you
Haggard was married at this time to Leona Williams, and he cut one of her songs, ‘Where Have You Been’, a call to work at friendship.
One of Hag’s major vocal influences was Ernest Tubb, and one wonders why Merle never got around to a dedicated tribute album . This is as close as he got, with three songs written by Tubb, and two more which he had recorded. The three written by Tubb are given very faithful cover versions. ‘Take Me Back And Try Me One More Time’ is my favourite, but ‘It’s Been So Long Darling’ and ‘I’ll Always Be Glad To Take You Back’ are also very good. The Floyd Tillman penned country standard ‘It Makes No Difference Now’ suits Merle perfectly. Stuart Hamblen was best known for his religious songs, but ‘Remember Me (I’m The One Who Loves You)’ is a secular tune, and Merle gives it a jazzy treatment.
Just six months later, Haggard released the magnificent Back To The Barrooms, which we reviewed last time we looked at Merle, and that record has rather overshadowed this one. It turns out to be something of an overlooked gem, although its pleasures lean to the subtle without obvious potential hit singles.