My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Freddy Powers

Book Review: Freddy Powers and Catherine Powers with Jake Brown – ‘The Spree Of 83’

Freddy Powers, country-jazz musician and songwriter, was an influential figure, not least as sidekick to Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. The book was started a few years before his death last year aged 84, with the help of his wife Catherine and professional writer Jake Brown.

It is neither biography not autobiography, coming across more as a set of clippings, or the script for a documentary’s voiceovers. Freddy himself, Catherine, and various friends and colleagues from his past (including the late Haggard), are all quoted at length talking about the man and incidents in his life, with each original interview or set of interviews chopped up and scattered through the book, interspersed with reviews of albums and concerts from the press, and the lyrics of many of Powers’ songs. I would have preferred some overarching third (or first) person narrative which would have made it feel more cohesive. (It could also have done with a sharper eye proofreading, as there are a few spelling errors throughout.) There is also a chapter comprising rare photographs, but unfortunately these do not translate well to a kindle reading. However, there are some fascinating anecdotes and the book offers some insight into Haggard at the peak of his career.

The book’s title comes from the period in the early 80s (actually covering several years, not just the 1983 of the title) when Freddy and Haggard lived on adjacent houseboats on Lake Shasta. Both separated or divorced and happy to be single again, they engaged in a hedonistic mix of drugs and sex with an everchanging group of women, while writing songs. It’s probably not the book to read if you want to believe your heroes never have feet of clay, although to be fair everyone involved seems to have had a really good time with no regrets.

This period is not the sole focus of the book, although as an incredibly creative time it does loom quite large in the story. Freddy also talks about his childhood and early career, and about his love story with his last wife Catherine (20 years his junior but very evidently the love of his life). In his last years, when the ravages of Parkinson’s disease stopped him from playing the guitar, he adopted more of a cuddly grandpa persona and served as mentor to young female artists, including Texas artist Pauline Reese and Mary Sarah.

So the content is absorbing; it’s just a shame that it was not better produced with more editorial input.

Grade: B


Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Blue Jungle’

blue jungleThe 1990s saw Haggard make what he hoped would be a new start as, following his departure from Epic, he signed a deal with Curb Records. His first album for the label featured mainly his own songs, and they’re a good collection.

There was only one single, ‘When It Rains It Pours’, which was almost ignored by radio, peaking at #30. But was this a missed opportunity? Haggard wanted his topical polemic ‘Me And Crippled Soldiers’ to be the lead single, but the label relegated it to the B-side, perhaps fearful that its message would be controversial. Written by Hag with his ex-wife Bonnie Owens, it was an outraged response to a recent Supreme Court decision which allowed burning the US flag as an expression of free speech. It may not have been a hit, but it still made an impact as a live favourite, and perhaps if it had been released in the download era I suspect it would have garnered big sales.

The actual single, ‘When It Rains It Pours’ is a rather downbeat little ballad about missing a loved one, written by John Cody Carter. It’s not a bad song, but it’s easy to see how it got lost in the competition from younger stars in the ferment of 1990.

There were other songs tackling current issues. ‘Under The Bridge’ and ‘My Home Is In The Street’ (the latter a co-write with wife Theresa) both put a personal face to the issue of homelessness. In both takes, a middle aged man loses his family’s home as the result of losing a job, and both songs express a positive attitude to life despite their dire circumstances:

No sir, I’m not homeless
We just need a house to put it in

The title track is a mellow western swing about the dreariness of a workday city life without a lover. There is a nice cover of one of Jimmie Rodgers’ lesser known tunes, ‘Never No Mo’ Blues’, with some authentic yodelling.

The best song on the album is the lost-love ballad ‘Lucky Old Colorado’, written by Red Simpson. Also excellent in the same style is ‘Sometimes I Dream’, and the wistful ‘Driftwood’, both fine new Haggard compositions.

Finally, the enjoyable shuffle ‘A Bar In Bakersfield’ which Hag wrote with Freddy Powers from the point of view of a musician who never made it big. Very charming.

This is a very nice album, with a generally subdued, low key feel, and a step back to more traditional country sounds from the jazz influences of his later Epic releases. There’s still an occasional bit of brass, but it is very much in the background. Unfortunately, lacking a big hit single or much in the way of promotion, it did not prove much of a commercial success, but it’s worth checking out.

Grade: B+

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-


Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘It’s All In The Game’

it's all in the gameMerle Haggard was always guilty of making interesting albums, and this 1984 Epic release, It’s All In The Game, was no exception to the rule.

The album, Haggard’s thirty-ninth studio album, soared to the top of Billboard’s County Albums chart for one week in September, powered by three number 1 singles.

The album opens up with the first single from the album, the playful chart-topper “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”, a tune co-written with Freddy Powers about a relationship that has been unraveling.

Next up (and the second single) is the Haggard-Powers-Willie Nelson collaboration “A Place To Fall Apart”. The song is not exactly a duet but does feature the voice of Jane Fricke quite prominently. The song is a very nice ballad that soared to #1.

I’ll prob’ly never see you eye to eye again
This letter’s meant to be my last farewell
But you need to under-stand I’m nearly crazy
You need to know my life has gone to hell
Write me back and tell me why it ended
Send a letter that I can show my heart
I’ll be somewhere between I love you and what you’re feeling now
Lookin’ for a place to fall apart

The third song is the answer to a trivia question: Name the only pop song written by a Vice President of the United State. The answer is “Its All In The Game” and the writer was Calvin Coolidge’s Vice President Charles Dawes. Dawes was actually a bank president at the time he composed the melody. The lyrics were added in 1951 a few months after Dawes’ death, so Dawes never knew about the pop sensation that his melody would become a few months later when Tommy Edwards took the song to #18 on the US pop charts. In 1958 Edwards would re-record the song for Mercury records, taking it to #1 on the Billboard pop charts for six weeks and to #1 for a week on the British pop charts.

The song would be recorded many times over the years. Haggard’s former label, MCA issued Haggard’s recording as a single in 1983. The song, released without promotion, reached #54 prompting Epic to have Haggard re-record the song and use it as the title track on this album. Haggard does a nice job with the song, although I still think Tommy Edwards’ 1958 recording is the best version of the song

Many a tear has to fall but it’s all in the game
All in the wonderful game that we know as love
You have words with him and your future’s looking dim
But these things, your hearts can rise above
Once in a while he won’t call but it’s all in the game
Soon he’ll be there at your side with a sweet, with a sweet bouquet (with sweet bouquet)
And he’ll kiss your lips and caress your waiting fingertips
And your heart, your heart will go to fly away

The next two songs “Little Hotel Room” (written by Freddy Powers) and “I Never Go Home Anymore” (written by Haggard) are ballads of Haggard’s frequently expressed sense of loss, alienation and loneliness. Both are interesting filler but I don’t think either would have made a good single. Ditto for “All I Want To Do Is Sing My Song” – it’s not bad but is not worthy of being a single. Here’s a snippet of the lyrics for “I Never Go Home Anymore”:

I own a house on the edge of the city
A suburban mansion I’m told
But the power’s all off and the phone lines are dead
And the hallways are lonely and cold

So I spend all my time in hotels and barrooms
Watching the whiskey they pour
Between airports and highways and the nightlife that’s my way
I never go home anymore

“Natural High” is the third #1 single from the album, again featuring Janie Fricke.

I had a discussion with someone at another country music blog about “Thank Heaven For Little Girls”, a song that seemed out of context and to that other person, perhaps a bit creepy. The song dates from a simpler and more innocent time and was one of the signature songs for the great French performer Maurice Chevalier. Written by the famed Broadway theatrical writers Alan J Lerner and Frederick Loewe (of Camelot, Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon and My Fair Lady fame) , “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” was the opening and closing theme for the movie Gigi. While I would not compare Haggard’s version of the song with that of Chevelier (that would be a unfair), he does do a nice job with this quaint and charming song.

Thank heaven for little girls
For little girls get bigger every day!
Thank heaven for little girls
They grow up in the most delightful way!
Those little eyes so helpless and appealing
One day will flash and send you crashin’ through the ceilin’

Thank heaven for little girls
Thank heaven for them all
No matter where, no matter who
For without them, what would little boys do?

>> Next up Haggard covers the hugely successful duet Willie Nelson had with Julio Iglesias on “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before”. It’s not really Haggard’s kind of song . Merle does a decent job with the song as a solo but the magic of the duet is missing.

Merle closes the album with “You Nearly Lose Your Mind”, an Ernest Tubb classic that Tubb wrote and recorded in 1948. Merle always excels with the Texas Troubadour’s songs and this time is no exception. This is probably my favorite song on the album.

Well if you love your mama and you treat her right
But she keeps on fussin’ at you every day and night
And she’s triflin’ on ye they’ll do it every time
And when your baby starts to steppin’ Lord you nearly lose your mind
Now if your mama’s mean take a tip from me
Lock her up at home Lord and hang on to the key
‘Cause she won’t triflin’ on ye they’ll do it every time
And when your baby starts to steppin’ Lord you nearly lose your mind
But if your mama’s good I’ll tell you what to do
Give her lots of lovin’ and what she wants to do
She’ll trifle on ye they’ll do it every time
And when your baby starts to steppin’ Lord you nearly lose your mind

I regard this as one of Merle’s strongest Epic albums. He still has Roy Nichols (lead) and Norm Hamlet (steel) as part of his Strangers, along with Don Markham on horns and the great Tiny Moore on fiddle and mandolin. I’d give this a solid A.


Album Review: Mary Sarah & Friends – ‘Bridges: Great American Country Duets’

bridges18 year old Mary Sarah Gross (who has, like many very young performers, dropped her surname for professional purposes) has been performing country music since her childhood. Discovered on Youtube by veterans the Oak Ridge Boys, her debut album, produced by songwriter Freddy Powers, features a number of very starry guests. The style harks back, sometimes to traditional country, but more often to the Nashville Sound and the pop music of that era. Mary Sarah’s voice has quite a light timbre at present, perhaps because of her youth, but she clearly has a lot of potential.

A real highlight is ‘Crazy’, which really suits Mary Sarah vocally, and is performed as a duet with the song’s writer Willie Nelson (offering his usual idiosyncratic vocal), with an arrangement similar to the Cline version. Very impressive.

She tackles Merle Haggard’s ‘Fighting Side Of Me’ with a perky confidence, and is joined by Haggard. A great traditional country arrangement make this very enjoyable although I’m not sure the defiance of the original quite survived. ‘Heartaches By The Number’, sung as a duet with the late Ray Price, is also great, with a wonderful traditional arrangement.

’Go Rest High On That Mountain’, which Vince Gill recorded in memory of Keith Whitley, seems like a curious choice of cover due to the personal and specific nature of the lyrics, but it is beautifully and tenderly sung by Mary Sarah, with Gill’s heavenly harmony the perfect counterpoint.

I took a while to warm up to Mary Sarah’s vocal on ‘Jolene’, despite a nice arrangement and Dolly herself harmonising prettily. I think she just sounds a little too forceful and not quite vulnerable enough, but the version has grown on me over repeated listens.

‘Rose Garden’ works well for Mary Sarah, on which she duets with Lynn Anderson. Tanya Tucker helps out on an energetic take on ‘Texas (When I Die)’. I can’t normally stand Big & Rich, so I was surprised to quite enjoy their contribution to a pretty but rather old fashioned love song. The ballad ‘My Great Escape’. ‘All I Wanna Do Is Sing My Song’, sung with her producer Freddy Powers, is also nicely done.

‘What A Difference You’ve Made In My Life’ is in 70s/early 80s pop-country style, with new Hall of Fame inductee Ronnie Milsap harmonising and offering the odd solo line. It sounds a bit dated by today’s standards, and the production is a bit cluttered with strings and belted out vocals without room for much subtlety, but it has a certain guilty pleasure quality about it. ‘Dream On’ featuring the Oak Ridge Boys is more of a disappointment – cluttered sounding and not very interesting, although Mary Sarah sings it well.

I really disliked the retro-pop ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Where The Boys Are’, a duet with Neil Sedaka, which has no country influences at all.

The sequencing of the album groups the stronger, and more country, tracks at the start, with the effect that after halfway through it feels like a downhill ride. I’m not sure I quite know who Mary Sarah is an artist, but I enjoyed quite a lot of the album, and she definitely has talent.

Grade: B+


Album Review: Suzy Bogguss – ‘Lucky’

LuckyOne of the hallmarks of a great song is its ability to be enjoyed even when stripped down to the barest of arrangements. With her latest project, Suzy Bogguss reaffirms — just in case there was any lingering doubt — that Merle Haggard is indeed the poet of the common man and one of country music’s greatest songwriters. Lucky, which was released earlier this month, is a collection of twelve Haggard tunes, simply and sparsely arranged with an occasional– and very subtle — touch of blues and jazz.

One of Suzy’s early singles and the title track of her 1989 debut album was a cover of Haggard’s “Somewhere Between”. Her version charted outside the Top 40, but it rightly earned her a lot of attention and critical acclaim. An entire album of Haggard covers, therefore, seems like a logical choice for her. Most Haggard tributes concentrate on his Capitol recordings, which admittedly are his best, but Bogguss wisely avoids some of the more obvious choices and digs deeper into Merle’s catalog. Well-known hits like “If We Make It Through December”, “Think I”ll Just Stay Here and Drink” and “Today I Started Loving You Again” are all present as are some of highlights His 80s output on Epic — “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”, “Going Where The Lonely Go” and “Someday When Things Are Good”. These are the Haggard records that I can remember as current hits on the radio. Another 80s song was a bit of a surprise. “I Always Get Lucky With You” was a #1 hit for George Jones in 1983; I had forgotten that Haggard had written it with Freddy Powers, Gary Church, and Tex Whitson. I was slightly disappointed that one my favorite Haggard songs from this era — the underrated Leona Williams-penned “You Take Me For Granted” — wasn’t included; it would have been a perfect showcase for Suzy’s voice, which is still in great form. I would have preferred it to “The Running Kind”, the album’s one misstep. Bogguss seems to be singing this one at the higher end of her register and straining slightly to do so. Her version falls short compared to Radney Foster’s fantastic 1994 recording for the multi-artist Haggard tribute album Mama’s Hungry Eyes.

“The Running Kind” notwithstanding, the other eleven tracks are excellent with “Silver Wings” and “Sing Me Back Home” being the two standout cuts. Fans of both Suzy Bogguss and Merle Haggard will not be disappointed.

Grade: A