My Kind of Country

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Album Review: Johnny Paycheck – ‘Mr Hag Told My Story’

Nowadays when a tribute album is released, often it is more of a multi-artist gala event than an honest tribute with many of those paying tribute being mere poseurs. This was not always the case. Prior to the Urban Cowboy movement, it was common to see single artist albums that paid tribute to another artist. Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Del Reeves paid tribute to Jim Reeves. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson, Ernest Tubb and Charley Pride issued Hank Williams tribute albums and Loretta Lynn cut a tribute album to Patsy Cline. Even the great Merle Haggard issued tribute albums to Bob Wills and Jimmie Rodgers, as did Willie Nelson with his a salute to Lefty Frizzell. Most of these single artist tribute albums were sincere tributes, but they were seldom innovative or particularly soulful endeavors, just albums of adequate cover versions.

Mr. Hag Told My Story is different. For one thing Paycheck, a somewhat kindred spirit to Haggard, inhabits these songs, making them very personal indeed. Moreover, instead of merely recording a collection of Haggard’s hits, Paycheck goes deep catalog, recording some relatively obscure songs that were mostly album tracks for Haggard.

While Haggard and Paycheck had some similarities such as tough childhoods which resulted in both being hellions during their younger years, Haggard outgrew his demons and never was regarded as being part of the outlaw movement. This may be at least partially due to Haggard’s producer at Capitol, Ken Nelson, giving Haggard free reign to release some very personal albums with less commercial viability. Consequently, Haggard did not have much cause for rebellion.

I am not convinced that Johnny Paycheck ever truly conquered his demons, except when he grew too old to continue his self-destructive ways.

Haggard was a huge star with over 20 years of sustained chart success while Paycheck had three scattered periods of success scattered over a 15 year period. Both were successful songwriters and both got started in the bands of the biggest stars of the time.

For a brief period of time Haggard and Paycheck recorded for the same label, Epic, toured together and were able to record together.

Released in 1981, Mr. Hag Told My Story is an album of moody and/or introspective songs all of which were written by Haggard except for “Carolyn” a Haggard hit written by Tommy Collins. There were no hit singles released from the album, but there are a lot of classic performances, with Haggard’s band The Strangers providing much of the instrumental backing.

The structure of the album is that Paycheck introduces each of the songs with a spoken introduction. Haggard himself weaves in and out of the album, sometimes as a lead or harmony singer, sometimes as part of a conversation and sometimes playing his guitar. Make no mistake – this is a Johnny Paycheck album but Haggard’s presence is significant.

The album opens up with “(I’m) Turning Off A Memory”, the B-side of Haggard’s 1971 hit “Grandma Harp”. This is a great song that I think should have been an A-side for Haggard. Haggard adds some asides and sings on the choruses and takes on one of the verses.

You can find me in a dim lighted bar room
If your coldness should ever turn warm
But the chances of you ever changing
Are as slim as your two loving arms

So I’m turning off a memory
As quickly as time will allow
Yes, I’m turning off a memory
And the wine seems to help me somehow

“I’ve Got A Yearning” was an album track on Haggard’s 1978 Capitol album Eleven Winners. Taken slightly up-tempo, the song is another tale of loneliness:

I’ve got a yearning to hold you tight
A burning desire I live with day and night
Everything I lose keeps on hanging on
This feeling isn’t leaving and by now it should be gone.

I keep on thinking those thoughts that keep making me want you all the time
I should be trying to find me a way I can drive you from my mind
I know that you wanted to give and I know that you gave all you could
Wish I could accept what is over and done with for good.

Tommy Collins wrote “Carolyn”, a classic song of frustration and angst, that Haggard took to the top of the charts in 1972. Here Paycheck sings the verses and Haggard does the narrations. Don Markham’s horns give the song a more jazzy feeling than on Haggard’s earlier single.

Yes, Carolyn, a man will do that sometimes on his own
And sometimes when he’s lonely
I believe a man will do that sometimes out of spite
But Carolyn, a man will do that always
When he’s treated bad at home

“I’ll Leave the Bottle on the Bar” comes from Haggard’s 1968 album Sing Me Back Home. This song is another featuring a quicker tempo. The steel guitar sounds like that of Big Jim Murphy, Paycheck’s regular steel guitarist:

A loser doesn’t always know he’s losing
Till he’s lost the game and it’s too late to win
I hope I’ll call in time and you’ll forgive me
‘Cause I want so much to come back home again
And I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
If you’ll take me back to start anew
I’ll leave the bottle on the bar
I’ll sober up and come back home to you

I’m not sure that “All Night Lady” was ever issued on a Merle Haggard album. This song is about Death Row, not the first time Haggard wrote about the subject. Paycheck does a masterful job of singing the song.

Through the window he sits watching his last sunset
Like a blackout curtain closing out the light
It’s now he needs someone’s arms around him
Yes it’s now he needs someone to help him through the night

An all night lady
One who loves me
And won’t leave me when daylight comes
One who’ll stay with me until my life is done

At 9 AM they’re going to lead him to the death-house
And at 10 AM they’ll lay his soul to rest
I can see them giving him his last supper
I can hear him giving them his last request

“I Can’t Hold Myself in Line” was the only single issued from the album, dying at #41. The song originally appeared on Haggard’s Pride in What I Am album released in 1969. This song is basically a very bluesy conversation between Haggard and Paycheck, with twin steel by Jim Murphy and Norm Hamlet, plus some very funky lead guitar by Roy Nichols and terrific horns played by Don Markham.

I’m going off of the deep end
And I’m slowly losing my mind
And I disagree with the way (ha-ha) I’m living
But I can’t hold myself in line

You give me no reason for my drinkin’
But I can’t stand myself at times
And you’re better off to just leave and forget me
Cause I can’t hold myself in line

“Yesterday’s News Just Hit Home Today” is another bluesy track with the sage advice that ‘being a fool is one thing, but not knowing you’re a fool is another thing’.

“You Don’t Have Very Far to Go” was a Haggard co-write with Red Simpson that first surfaced on Haggard’s 1967 album Branded Man. I thought at the time that it would have made a good single for Haggard but then, most of his sixties albums were full of good singles material. Johnny gives it a more honky-tonk treatment that Hag had given it.

You always find the way to hurt my pride
If I’m not crying you’re not satisfied
And I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go
You don’t have very far to go

Before the heartache begins
I already feel the sadness
Of a heartbreak settin’ in
I don’t know why you want to hurt me so
If you’re tryin’ to break my heart
You don’t have very far to go

“No More You and Me” is a fairly generic honky-tonk ballad, executed perfectly by Paycheck.

The album closes with the bluesy title track “Someone Told My Story”:

I played a brand-new record on the jukebox
And I scarcely could believe the song I heard
It told of how you left me for another
It was almost like I’d written every word

Someone told my story in a song
The lyrics told of happiness and home
And then it told of how you’ve done me wrong

Someone told my story in a song
The writer must’ve seen the way you done me
For he told it all and never missed a line
He told of swinging doors and the jukebox

And he even knew I almost lost my mind
Someone told my story in a song

After listening to this album, I think you’d have to say that Haggard definitely told Paycheck’s story in his songs. This album is my favorite of the post-Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck. Really, how could this miss?

The great songs of Merle Haggard, as sung by Johnny Paycheck with an amplified version of Haggard’s Strangers providing most of the instrumental backing and Hag himself joining in at times.

Grade: A+

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 – ‘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: Merle Haggard – ‘Same Train, A Different Time: A Tribute To Jimmie Rodgers’

Merle Haggard was extremely fortunate that he landed with Capitol Records where he was granted considerable musical independence by his producer Ken Nelson. Nelson believed in letting his artists have freedom of expression. Nelson was there to ensure a quality production job and to give direction if needed, but to otherwise stay out of the way. In the case of artists such as Sonny James, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, this approach paid enormous dividends. It is difficult to imagine a different producer allowing one of his artists to issue as many non-commercial albums as Nelson allowed Haggard.

I was living in England when this album was issued in 1969 and purchased the single album British condensation of the US two-record set. When I got back Stateside I purchased the two record set, which I have to this day. I was delighted to find it on CD but when I’m home I still listen to the LP, reserving the CD for use in the car.

Same Train, A Different Time is something of a travelogue through Jimmie’s career with twenty of Jimmie’s songs interspersed with five narrations penned by Hugh Cherry and read by Haggard. This album features Haggard’s Strangers, with Roy Nichols often playing blues harmonica, instead of his customary lead guitar. The band, augmented by legendary guitarist James Burton on dobro, does a reasonable good job of replicating the feel (if not necessarily the sound) of the JR originals, and Haggard’s vocals are clearly a labor of love, complete with yodels. I should note that Jimmie Rodgers recorded in a number of settings, ranging from a simple guitar accompaniment to a full orchestra, with at least one recording featuring jazz legends Louis Armstong (trumpet) and Lil Hardin (piano). Haggard does not attempt to replicate the more complex settings sometimes found on Rodgers’ recordings but focuses on a basic blues or country setting. He also tends to focus more on songs that are based on the blues than Jimmie’s other inspirations.

Looking from the vantage point of 2011, it is difficult to comprehend just how important Jimmie Rodgers was to the development of country music as we know it. Such diverse performers as Jimmie Davis, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Bill Monroe, Grandpa Jones, Elton Britt, Wilf “Montana Slim” Carter and Lefty Frizzell all had Jimmie Rodgers as a primary influence in the development of their own musical styles – Snow and Tubb even worked overtime in helping establish the Jimmie Rodgers Festival Museum in Meridian, Mississippi.

Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) was a railroad man who worked for many of America’s railroads until tuberculosis left him too weak to work. Jimmie had the heart and soul of a wanderer, and found his inspiration wherever music was played, incorporating blues, Appalachian ballads, jazz, vaudeville tunes, Tin Pan Alley and English parlor songs into his repertoire and creating a synthesis that inspired generations to come. Although Haggard grew up hearing Jimmie’s songs performed by others (such as Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow) it wasn’t until 1951 when Lefty Frizzell issued a series of 78 rpm recordings in tribute to Jimmie Rodgers (later issued as an LP), that Haggard went to the trouble of looking up the actual recordings of Jimmie Rodgers.

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Album Review: Merle Haggard & The Strangers – ‘Mama Tried’ and ‘Pride In What I Am’

Mama Tried was Merle Haggard’s third album release of 1968, following Sing Me Back Home and The Legend of Bonnie & Clyde, each of which added one more #1 hit to his growing list of accomplishments. By now his albums were relying more heavily on outside songwriters and Capitol was only releasing one single per LP, but that in no way suggests that there was a decline in quality. On the contrary, Haggard shows considerable skill in putting his own stamp on these songs. Case in point: Curly Putman’s “Green, Green Grass of Home” had previously been popularized by Porter Wagoner, Bobby Bare, Charley Pride, and Tom Jones, but Merle’s version, which ties in perfectly with the album’s prison theme, sounds as though it were written specifically for him. His interpretative ability is further tested as he tackles Dolly Parton’s “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)”. It isn’t easy to convincingly sing a highly personal, autobiographical song that someone else has written, but Merle passes with flying colors and his version easily holds its own with Parton’s original version. No one could ever outdo Johnny Cash on “Folsom Prison Blues”, but Haggard comes close. In his heyday he was a superior vocalist to Cash, and it is quite possible that those who are unfamiliar with the original version might prefer Merle’s take on the song.

The album’s main attraction, is of course, the title track, which became Haggard’s fifth #1 record. “Mama Tried” is my all-time favorite Haggard tune, and it arguably would be his signature song had he not later recorded “Okie From Muskogee”. Though only semi-autobiographical, the song is clearly an attempt to make amends for the pain Merle caused his mother when he was sent to prison. Though the lyrics are mournful, this is an uptempo honky-tonk number, heavy on the pedal steel and featuring some excellent electric guitar work from Roy Nichols. It must have stood in stark contrast to most of the other records on the charts at the time, which were mostly in the Nashville Sound or countrypolitan style. Another highlight is the very traditional “I Could Have Gone Right”, another prison song that sounds like a Haggard original, but which was actually penned by a still relatively unknown Mel Tillis. “Two Many Bridges To Cross Over”, written by the great Dallas Frazier, closes out the original album. This 2-for-1 reissue contains two bonus tracks, “I’m Looking for My Mind” and the religious number “You’re Not Home Yet.”

Pride In What I Am was the first of three Haggard albums released in 1969. He changes direction slightly, taking a break from the convict theme which had dominated his music over the previous two years. It was a wise move, since he would have quickly been pigeon-holed had he continued to release prison songs, but overall, the more mellow Pride In What Am is less interesting than Mama Tried or the two or three albums that preceded it.

This time around, Haggard wrote six of the album’s twelve tracks, including the title track, which temporarily interrupted his string of #1 hits, peaking at #3. Throughout this album, Merle seems to be backing away a bit from the hard-edged Bakersfield sound that had characterized his earlier albums. Pride In What I Am is a little closer to what was being produced in Nashville at the time. It uses Nashville Sound-like vocal choruses but eschews the lush string arrangements which were still in vogue in Music City. The production on “I Take A Lot Of Pride In What I Am” reminds me somewhat of Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” which had been a minor hit on the country charts about two years earlier. The album’s best track is the blues-tinged Haggard original “I Can’t Hold Myself In Line”. I’m also partial to “I’m Bringing Home Good News”, another Haggard-penned tune that brings some welcome energy to a largely mellow-sounding album.

Among the best of the non-Haggard written tunes are Merle’s tributes to his idols Lefty Frizzell and Jimmie Rodgers. He covers the former’s “It Meant Goodbye To Me (When You Said Hello To Him” and the latter’s “California Blues (Blue Yodel No. 4)”

The CD reissue contains three bonus tracks, “California On My Mind”, “White Line Fever” and “Streets of Berlin”. Germany is an unusual setting for a Haggard song; this sounds like a song that would have been better suited for Marty Robbins, and Merle’s vocal performance sounds as though it were heavily influenced by his good friend.

Mama Tried and Pride In What I Am are easy to find, both separately, and as a 2-for-1 CD or digital download (the 2-for-1 option is better value). Mama Tried is essential listening, and while Pride In What I Am doesn’t quite reach that lofty level, it is still worth a listen.

Grades:

Mama Tried: A
Pride In What I Am: B+

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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Country Heritage Redux: Wynn Stewart (1934-1985)

An updated version of an article originally published by The 9513:

Mention Bakersfield to a country music fan and the names Buck Owens and Merle Haggard immediately come to mind. That’s to be expected considering Buck and the Hag were the two most successful practitioners of the “Bakersfield Sound,” but there are several other artists just as important to the evolution of the sound. Chief among these is Wynn Stewart, a hard-core honky-tonk singer who arrived at a time when Nashville was distancing itself from the hard-core sounds.

Country music rapidly lost its audience after the arrival of Elvis Presley in 1956. In order to retain viability in the marketplace, Nashville producers attempted to broaden the appeal of the music by adding strings and background voices. As time went by, the background voices became choruses, the strings became entire string sections and (worst of all) fiddle and steel guitar became noticeably absent in the recordings of the likes of Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold. Plus, the vocals themselves often became bland.

Wynn Stewart arrived in 1954 with his hard-core sound and distinctive tenor and phrasing, recording for a minor label out in California. He signed to major label Capitol in 1956 and had one hit, “Waltz of the Angels,” which reached #14, but he was unable to duplicate that success and was soon released.

He then signed to Jackpot / Challenge Records in 1958 where, after dabbling with a few rock and roll songs on the Jackpot label, he recorded a number of classic country songs, including “Wishful Thinking,” which hit #5 (Ralph Mooney on steel and Gordon Terry on fiddle), “Big Big Big Love (#18) and several duets with Jan Howard, including “Wrong Company” (#26). These records featured fiddle and steel guitar in a way that Nashville recordings of that era wouldn’t touch. My personal favorite of Stewart’s songs, “Playboy,” was recorded during this period. As was often the case for Stewart, some of his strongest material did not chart – this song being one of those cases.

While Stewart was signed to Challenge, one of his songs, “Above and Beyond,” was recorded by Buck Owens who took it to #3 in early 1960 (Buck’s second big hit). Years later Rodney Crowell finally got the song to #1. Before Buck formed the Buckaroos, you could clearly hear the Wynn Stewart influence in his vocals and sound.

In late 1963, Stewart’s bass player, a young ex-con named Merle Haggard, asked for his permission to record “Sing A Sad Song.” Always willing to help a fellow artist, Wynn gave the song to Merle who had his first chart record with the song (it reached #19).

Stewart re-signed with Capitol Records in 1964 but had little success until 1967, when his fifth single for the label, “It’s Such A Pretty World Today,” topped the charts. The recording found the classic Wynn Stewart sound softened with vocal choruses and string accompaniment. Three more top tens (“‘Cause I Have You,” “Love’s Gonna Happen To Me” and “Something Pretty”) followed, but the hits became smaller and smaller and after 1971 Stewart was dropped by Capitol. A stint with RCA produced no hits, although he did score one more top ten with “After The Storm” in 1976 on the Playboy label where he returned to his hard-core sound. Stewart’s last top 20 hit came in 1977 with “Sing A Sad Song,” which, ironically, was the song that launched Merle Haggard’s career; it too, got to #19.

Stewart formed his own label, Pretty World Records, named for his biggest hit, and seemed to be ready to get his career back into high gear when he was felled by a heart attack on July 17, 1985.

Both Buck Owens and Merle Haggard have cited Wynn Stewart as a major influence on their careers, yet somehow, he was never able to translate his enormous talent into extended and consistent success for himself. Possible reasons are several:

1. Poor timing. He was a hard country artist at a time when Nashville was going soft and attempting to co-opt the easy listening market.
2. A lack of self-discipline and some bouts with the bottle.
3. Lack of visual appeal. Like Haggard, Wynn Stewart was short in stature, probably shorter than Haggard. Unlike Haggard, who was very handsome and photogenic in his younger days, Wynn Stewart was just another guy, and not very photogenic (his daughters are all quite pretty, however.)

Wynn Stewart inspired tremendous loyalty among his fellow musicians and artists. For years after his death, legendary steel guitar player Ralph Mooney would identify himself as “Wynn Stewart’s steel player.” Roy Nichols, Haggard’s long-time guitar player, played for Wynn Stewart, and before that, for Lefty Frizzell. Roy regarded Stewart as a giant of the music.

Affordable CD collections of Wynn’s material are few. The crown jewel, of course, is Wishful Thinking, a massive ten CD box set. This set covers 279 recordings, from all labels, and is the only place to find all of Wynn’s Capitol hits. This set lists for $299 but can be found for less money if you look around.

Other than the Bear Box Set, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop has available only two other Wynn Stewart collections. There is a Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962 CD issued by Varese Sarabande available covering his years with Challenge Records. While this collection of nineteen songs misses his big hits on Capitol, it does include what I feel to be his best recordings: hard-core honky-tonk classics. Varese Sarabande also issued The Very Best of Wynn Stewart and Jan Howard which features eight Jan Howard songs from the Challenge years, six Wynn Stewart songs and the four duets they did together. Both of the Varese Sarabande sets are highly recommended.

http://www.collectorschoicemusic.com has available all three of the above titles plus Wynn Stewart- Greatest Country Hits. There is finally a CD available that contains some of Wynn’s recordings on Capitol. Titled Wynn Stewart – Greatest Country Hits, the CD, issued by Micro Werks (out of Los Angeles) contains his 13 biggest hits. The music is excellent, although I was hoping for a more comprehensive set (such as the other three Capitol singles to chart, plus some key album tracks), but at least it’s out there.

It’s out of print now, but in 1995 AVI released Wynn Stewart – The Best of The Challenge Years. This set contains sixteen of the nineteen songs on the Varese set plus an additional thirteen songs. With some effort, you may be able to find this CD.

Stewart’s daughter, Wren Stewart Tidwell, runs a very informative website and has some of Stewart’s vinyl LPs for sale. While I have hopes that someday Capitol / EMI comes to its senses and releases some of the songs on CD, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it to happen. The LPs are all worth owning and I’ve been buying them whenever I can find them. The official Wynn Stewart website is at http://www.wynnstewart.com

He recorded at least 58 of the 45 rpm singles–of which 31 charted. Used record stores may carry some of these records. Another place to search is http://www.musicstack.com . Happy hunting!

There is also available a tribute album available, recorded by Billy Keeble. This CD features 15 of Billy’s favorite Wynn Stewart songs, including a duet with Wren Stewart Tidwell on one of the selections. Billy isn’t Wynn Stewart, but his CD shows the breadth of the Wynn Stewart repertoire. This disc is available from CD Baby or from http://www.billykeeble.com.

Interestingly enough, Wynn experienced a bit of an upsurge in 2010 when Volkswagen used his 1962 recording of “Another Day, Another Dollar” in a commercial for the VW Jetta. This song can be found on the Bear Box Set and on the Varese Sarabande Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962 collection. While the song was not a giant hit (#18 Cashbox /#27 on Billboard), it is fondly remembered by those of us who recall hearing it the first time around.