My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lou Bradley

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Working In Tennessee’

Last year’s excellent I Am What I Am showed that a seventy-something Merle Haggard was still an artistic force to be reckoned with. His latest album (tastefully produced by the same team of Lou Bradley and Haggard himself) is not quite as strong, with good but not really outstanding material, and his ageing vocals seem to me to have deteriorated noticeably even since his last studio outing. But even a little below his best, he is always worth paying attention to.

Haggard wrote almost all of the songs, with two exceptions. He is convincingly unrepentant playing the drink-and-drugs fuelled murderer on T J Arnall’s ‘Cocaine Blues’ – famously covered by Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. The other is a pleasant but unremarkable version of classic duet ‘Jackson’ sung with Haggard’s wife Theresa, who made her debut on I Am What I Am.

She and Doug Colosio helped to write the interesting but distinctly odd ‘Laugh It Off’, offering advice to someone with a tendency to get in trouble with the law, and featuring an unnerving manic cackle. ‘Under The Bridge’ (another Theresa co-write with her husband) is a melodic portrait of an unemployed homeless couple with a possibly unrealistic optimistic outlook. The best of her contributions is the mellow reminiscing of early married life ‘Down On The Houseboat’, which sounds autobiographical with its mention of daughter Jenessa as an infant; Theresa’s harmony vocals add to the touching intimacy. Jenessa in turn wrote one song with her father, the rather good ‘Sometimes I Dream’, which has an attractive tune and pensive lyrics about coming to terms with a broken heart, and could have been a hit if it had been recorded 30 years ago.

Haggard’s teenage son Ben and old friend Willie Nelson guest on a revival of ‘Workin’ Man Blues’. Young Ben has a pretty good voice and plays guitar as well; I’ll be interested in seeing how his career develops.

Haggard has never been reluctant to express socio-political views, and here he lets us know ‘What I Hate’ (including hypocritical politicians and apathy), and advocating change:

What I live for is a chance to change and be everything I can be…
Now we can’t change the whole wide world
But maybe we could change our neighborhood

‘Truck Drivers’ Blues’ (written with Tim Howard) is a bit dull, although it is nicely played.

A couple of songs tackle the state of country music. The lively western swing of the title track tells the story of a former would-be star who fetches up at Opryland and witnesses last year’s devastating Nashville floods. The up-tempo ‘Too Much Boogie Woogie’ complains about the lack of traditional country music compared with 1963, namechecking the likes of Connie Smith, Marty Stuart, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Ernest Tubb.:

The truth about the matter is enough to make you cry…
The stuff they’re playing on the radio
Oughta be down at the bottom of the abyss

The boogie-woogie reference in particular dates it rather badly (and it’s been a while since Emmylou Harris was bearing a torch for traditional country), but it’s an enjoyable song.

Interestingly, this is one of those rare modern records to get a vinyl release for collectors as well as CD and digital.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘I Am What I Am’

Too often in recent years, in both song and in interviews, Merle Haggard has come across as a grumpy old man who is often (and sometimes justifiably) frustrated with both the state of the nation and the music industry. His first album of all-new material in nearly five years finds him sounding less cynical and angry, less overtly political, more optimistic — and surprisingly refreshed. Incorporating a variety of sounds — from traditional country and Western swing to folk and Dixeland jazz — he doesn’t break any new ground or cover any territory that he hasn’t visited many times in the past, yet he sounds more connected to the music than he has on his past few releases. He wrote and produced all of the album’s songs, with Lou Bradley assisting as co-producer.

The Hag is joined once again by his always-stellar band The Strangers, sans Bonnie Owens who passed away in 2006 and whose presence is missed. Cast aside long ago by country radio, Merle makes no concessions to contemporary mainstream tastes. All of the tracks on I Am What I Am, Haggard’s first release for Vanguard Records, sound as though they could have been culled from his best albums of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. His voice is showing some inevitable signs of wear and tear, but for the most part he is in good vocal form throughout the album, especially in light of the fact that he underwent surgery for lung cancer in late 2008.

The album opens with “I’ve Seen It Go Away”, a Woody Guthrie-style number with a “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” theme. He makes some social commentary, as he is often wont to do, though he makes his points more subtly here than he has in the past, taking gentle swipes at the country music establishment:

I’ve seen my share of good times come and go,
I’ve seen Bob Wills and Elvis, when they did a show.
When you’ve seen the very best, the rest can’t hardly play,
I’ve seen it, girls, and I’ve seen it go away

and America’s political leaders:

I’ve watched it all completely fall apart,
And I’ve seen our greatest leaders break the people’s heart.
I’ve seen most of what we’ve got have a whole lot better day,
I’ve seen it, kids, and I’ve seen it go away.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of 1981’s “Rainbow Stew”, which is largely forgotten today, but it is an important song to me personally, since this is the song he had on the charts around the time that I became interested in country music.

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Album Review: John Anderson – ‘All The People Are Talkin’

johnanderson-all the people are talkinAfter his wildly successful Wild and Blue album, propelled by the smash crossover hit, ‘Swingin’, John Anderson’s next album featured much of the same formula as the previous release.  So while there are still plenty of stone-country moments here, we also find John branching out into the rock and roll sound that he embraced for the rest of the 1980s.  All The People Are Talkin’ was released in September 1983 and reached the #9 spot on the albums chart as the lead single was climbing the singles charts. ‘Black Sheep’ would reach the top in December of that year and the follow-up single would also reach the top 10 in early 1984.

Danny Darst and Robert Altman penned the growling rocker, ‘Black Sheep’.  This clever tune tells the tale of a truck driver who, in his family’s eyes doesn’t measure up to his professional siblings.  Though his parents don’t seem to understand, he’s just as happy in his own element as they are in their ivory tower lifestyle: ‘Yeah I drive me a big ol’ semi truck I’m makin’ payments on a two room shack/My wife she waits on tables and at night she rubs my back’. It’s a very relatable song.  The message of living your life on your own terms, even though it doesn’t meet your family’s expectations, is very universal.

Another grooving track was released to radio with ‘Let Somebody Else Drive’, and crested at #10.  Merle Kilgore and Mack Vickery wrote the song, which was adopted by Mothers Against Drunk Driving as an anthem for the group.  Though the song’s message is anti-drunk-driving, it’s a rocking tune in zydeco fashion complete with horns and strings.

The album opens with the title track, an uptempo ditty written by Fred Carter Jr.  In this tune, driven by some snazzy sax, the narrator’s friends are all telling him the things his lady has been up to, but he chooses not to believe them.  Love is blind and blindness is bliss.  Twin fiddles kick off ‘Blue Lights and Bubbles’, one of my favorite songs on the album.  A twist on the old ‘get out to a smoky, neon-lit bar to get over you’ tune, you can almost hear the beer caps popping off as it plays.

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