My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘The Way I Am’

the way i amThe 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:

Wake up
Don’t just lay there like cold granite stone
Wake up
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.

Grade: A

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Serving 190 Proof’

One would be hard pressed to find any duds within Merle Haggard’s Capitol catalog; during his dozen or so years with the label he and Ken Nelson created an impressive body of work. While Haggard continued to produce worthwhile music in his post-Capitol career, it’s generally acknowledged that his output was more hit or miss after he departed the label. Serving 190 Proof, produced by Fuzzy Owen and released in 1979 on MCA, is one of his less interesting efforts, despite producing two Top 5 hits.

Haggard wrote or co-wrote nine of the album’s eleven tracks, including the two singles “Red Bandana” and “My Own Kind Of Hat”, both of which peaked at #4. “Red Bandana” is about a pair of free spirits, 30 years into their relationship, and now she apparently wants to settle down, but Merle states emphatically that “I can’t change and live the way you want me to.” “My Own Kind Of Hat” is a whimsical ditty about marching to the beat of a different drummer. The catchy lyrics have fun with some words that contain double meanings, as well as a few double entendres:

There’s two kinds of brothers and two kinds of lovers
And two kinds of babies to hold
There’s two kinds of cherries and two kinds of fairies
And two kinds of mothers, I’m told, and told …

The rest of the album takes a more serious tone. The opening track “Footlights” is one of the most introspective songs Haggard ever recorded. It talks about the loneliness and isolation of life on the road, having to put on a brave face and smile for the sake of the fans, and — despite tremendous professional success — having to little to celebrate in his personal life. “Got Lonely Too Early (This Morning)” is a little more upbeat, despite the serious lyrics. The melody is somewhat similar to “C.C. Waterback”, which Merle would record a few years later with George Jones, but “Got Lonely” lacks the energy of that later track. It plods along and somehow doesn’t quite work.

The album’s best track is one that Haggard didn’t write. “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, penned by the always reliable Sanger D. Shafer, finds Merle in therapy to overcome a drinking problem. Had the song been written a few years later, one could easily imagine Keith Whitley singing it.

As the album progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that Haggard was in the midst of a midlife crisis of sorts. He talks about loneliness and advancing age in “Footlights”, a drinking problem in “Heaven Was A Drink Of Wine”, and in “Driftwood” he is drifting through life without purpose. He finds that he can’t run away from his problems in “I Can’t Get Away” and in Red Lane’s “I Must Have Done Something Bad”, he’s been betrayed by a wife or girlfriend and thinks that it must be retribution for something he did in the past. He turns nostalgic with “Sing A Family Song” and holds out some hope that things will get better in the album’s closing track “Roses In The Winter”, which despite, being a very pretty song, doesn’t seem to be a good fit for Merle.

Whether it was his state of mind or the absence of Ken Nelson, Serving 190 Proof is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Most of the songs are good, but as a collection it seems a bit lifeless. By most other artists’ standard, Serving 190 Proof would be considered stellar work, but while it is by no means a bad album, it fails to reach the high bar set by Haggard’s earlier work on Capitol. While it is not his best work, it is still worth a listen, and is easy to find on CD and as a digital download.

Grade: B

Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad)’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’

1972’s It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad) was Merle Haggard’s 15th studio album for Capitol Records. Like his previous efforts, it was produced by Ken Nelson and Fuzzy Owen. It was recorded entirely at California — part of it as early as 1970 — at Capitol Records Studio and United Recording Studio in Hollywood, and Buck Owens Studio in Bakersfield. He wrote five of the album’s eleven tracks, relying on writers such as Hank Cochran, Glenn Martin, Tommy Collins, and Red Lane to supply the rest of the album’s songs. Cochran and Glenn supplied the title track, which became Merle’s 13th #1 hit. It’s one of my favorite Merle Haggard tunes that he didn’t write himself. Emmylou Harris revived it a decade later when she included a version on her live Last Date album.

The title track was the only single released from the collection, so most of the tunes here will be unfamiliar to many fans; however, this is an excellent collection without a single dud among its eleven tracks. Haggard’s own “My Woman Keeps Lovin’ Her Man” and “New York City Blues” which finds him homesick in Yankee territory, are both excellent, with the latter showing a strong Jimmie Rodgers influence. Another Haggard original, “A Shoulder To Cry On” would become a #1 hit for Charley Pride a few months later. Pride had expressed an interest in the song upon hearing Haggard perform it shortly after it was written. Merle generously allowed Charley to record the song and release it as a single. Had he kept it for himself, it’s a safe assumption to say that his own version would have reached the top of the charts.

“Dad’s Old Fiddle” sounds like a Haggard-penned tune, but it was actually written by Glenn Martin, most likely with Merle in mind. It tells the story of a man who inherits his father’s fiddle and learns to play it. Merle’s own father had played the fiddle in Oklahoma, but gave it up before Merle was born, and Merle later taught himself how to play the instrument when he was preparing to record his Bob Wills tribute album.
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Album Review: Merle Haggard: ‘Strangers’ and ‘Swinging Doors And The Bottle Let Me Down’

Haggard’s debut single was a cover of Bakersfield star Wynn Stewart’s ‘Sing A Sad Song’ which was released on independent West Coast label Tally. Although it crept into the top 20 on Billboard, Merle sounds as if he is trying too hard to copy Stewart vocally, breaking into an uncomfortable falsetto, and there is a very heavy handed string arrangement.

He followed that up with a song penned by another Bakersfield boy, Tommy Collins’s perky novelty story song ‘Sam Hill’, which is certainly memorable, but now sounds very dated, particularly the backing vocals, and it performed less well than its predecessor. On the flip side was the pained ballad ‘You Don’t Have Very Far To Go’, which Haggard wrote with fellow Bakersfield singer-songwriter Red Simpson. This is an excellent song, addressed to although the string section is overdone again.

The third and last single for Tally, the rueful ‘(All Of My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers’, was the one which really kickstarted his career. The first of many genuine classics Haggard was to make hits, it is unusual in that it was not one of his own songs, but was written by fellow Californian Liz Anderson (mother of Lynn), to whom he had been introduced by Bonnie Owens. A Bakersfield bar room take on lost love, it was his first top 10 hit single and gave him the name of his backing band, the Strangers. Even though a competing version by the more established Roy Drusky may have cut into sales, it was a big enough success that it persuaded major label Capitol to buy out his Tally contract. Six Tally sides were packaged with newly recorded material in the same vein, produced by Ken Nelson, for Haggard’s debut album in 1965.

The malicious ‘I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can’ (a Haggard original) was his first single actually released on Capitol, although it failed to break into the top 40 on Billboard. It is an energetic, personality-infused response to “get even with womankind” by breaking the hearts of every girl he meets.

Typically, country albums in the 60s featured one or two singles, a lot of filler, and covers of other artists’ hits. Haggard was much more album-oriented, even at this early stage, writing five of the album’s dozen tracks, and there are other songs which could have been hit singles given the exposure.

I really like ‘Please Mr DJ’, a disconsolate plea for the radio to play a specific song for “someone who broke my heart today”. ‘If I Had Left It Up To You’ is another very good song with the protagonist regretting his earlier fighting for a doomed relationship, as if he had not done so,

It’d all be over now except the crying
I’d be used to spending all my nights alone

A couple of tracks are still filler, with overdone string-laden productions. The heartbreak ballad ‘You Don’t Even Try’ was written with Haggard’s friend (and Bonnie Owens’s then boyfriend) Fuzzy Owen, co-owner of Tally, while steel guitarist Ralph Mooney’s romantic and sophisticated sounding ‘Falling For You’ is not a patch on ‘Crazy Arms’.

A cover of Ernest Tubb’s classic ‘Walking The Floor Over You’ is taken at a disconcertingly brisk, almost cheerful pace, which doesn’t quite work. Rounding out the set are rather better versions of another fine Liz Anderson song, the depressed ‘The Worst Is Yet To Come’, and Jenny Lou Carson’s sad but pretty sounding lament for lost love ‘I’d Trade All Of My Tomorrows’.

The West Coast based Academy of Country Music recognized this bright new star by naming him Best New Male Vocalist for 1965 and also gave him the Best Vocal Duo award for his duet album with Bonnie Owens. A year later he had advanced to the title of Best Male Vocalist. Haggard was definitely on the right track with his debut, but had not quite found his distinctive voice yet.

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Spotlight Artist: Merle Haggard

There is a small group of performers, without whom it is impossible to imagine what country music would be like. Near the very top of this list is Merle Haggard, one of country music’s most talented and prolific singer/songwriters, and whose tremendous impact on the genre is indisputable.

He was born in Oildale, California on April 6, 1937, to parents who had migrated from Oklahoma during the Great Depression. His father Jim, who worked as a carpenter for the Santa Fe Railroad, died from a stroke in 1946. This traumatic and devastating event set nine-year-old Merle on the path of juvenile delinquency. He spent the next few years in and out of reform schools. At age 20, he was arrested for the attempted burglary of a tavern in Bakersfield, and was sentenced to one to fifteen years in the state penitentiary at San Quentin.

A few years before his burglary conviction, when he was 14 years old, Merle had the opportunity to attend a Lefty Frizzell concert, which helped to spark his interest in a career in music. Despite his tender age, Merle had already begun performing in local bars. During his incarceration at San Quentin, he was encouraged to pursue a music career by a fellow inmate nicknamed Rabbit. Rabbit escaped from the prison and was later returned and executed for killing police officer. This was one of the events that helped young Haggard to turn his life around. It was also the inspiration for his 1968 hit, “Sing Me Back Home”.

Haggard was released from San Quentin in 1960. He returned to Bakersfield and worked a variety of manual labor jobs while pursuing his musical dreams. He eventually got a gig playing at a Las Vegas club owned by Wynn Stewart, where he caught the attention of producer Fuzzy Owen, who signed Merle to his independent label, Tally Records. His first release was the modestly successful “Skid Row”, which was followed by a cover of Wynn Stewart’s “Sing A Sad Song”, which reached #19 in 1963. In 1965, he scored his first major hit with the Liz Anderson composition “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers”, which became his first Top 10 record, despite a competing version by Roy Drusky which was on the charts at the same time. In addition to providing Merle with a name for his road band, it also led to a contract with Capitol Records, which would be his label home for the next 13 years.

During these early years of his career, Haggard was based on the west coast and, along with Buck Owens, was instrumental in forging the Bakersfield Sound, which was a backlash against the more polished and highly-orchestrated Nashville Sound. In 1967 he scored his first #1 hit with another Liz Anderson (co-written with Casey Anderson) number called “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”. Though Haggard is well-known today for his convict songs, he was initially reluctant to sing and write about his incarceration, but was eventually convinced by Johnny Cash that doing so would prevent his past deeds from becoming tabloid fodder. His second #1 was the self-penned “Branded Man”, which was followed by “Sing Me Back Home” which also topped the charts. In 1968 he topped the charts with another prison song, “Mama Tried.”

Haggard’s best known song came in 1969. “Okie From Muskogee” was apparently intended as a joke, but struck a chord with those were fed up with the turbulence and protests of the sixties. Along with the follow-up release, the more combative “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, “Okie” established Haggard as a conservative icon. This image was further solidified with later records such as “Are The Good Times Really Over” and “Me and Crippled Soldiers”, a tune about flag burning which led to Merle’s split with Epic Records in 1989. In 1972 he received an unconditional pardon from California Governor Ronald Reagan. Ironically, in recent years Merle’s politics seem to have shifted considerably to the left, as he became an outspoken critic of the Iraq War and endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for president in 2008.

Merle Haggard was named Entertainer of the Year by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music in 1970. He has won 13 ACM awards, five CMA awards, and three Grammys, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1994. He has also scored 38 #1 hits, a feat surpassed only by Conway Twitty and George Strait. Although his commercial success began to decline dramatically beginning in the late 1980s, he has never stopped making music and remains an important and respected artist today. His latest album, Working in Tennessee, will be released on October 4th. We hope you will enjoy our spotlight coverage of the career of this iconic and sometimes controversial figure.