My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: The Strangers

Album Review: Earl Thomas Conley – ‘Live at Billy Bob’s’

Smith Music Group’s Live at Billy Bob’s series has proven to be a really mixed bag of albums. Virtually all of the recordings feature top name artists of the past – usually of the not-too-distant past, The recording sound quality is variable (usually decent, sometimes much better) but the bands vary in that sometimes the artist uses his own band (Merle Haggard and his Strangers) but often the band is a few musicians that the artist brought with them augmented by the house band. The Doug Stone set seems to have caught him on a night when he had a cold because he sounded terrible, yet I saw him a few months later doing a largely acoustic set and he sounded terrific. The albums all contain 14-18 songs, usually the artist doing the hits with perhaps one or two other songs included.

Earl Thomas Conley – Live At Billy Bob’s follows the usual pattern being comprised of sixteen songs, all but one of the songs being top ten hits for Earl (the exception is “Hard Days & Honky Tonk Nights” which died at #36). The album was recorded in 2004, at which point Earl (or ETC, if you prefer) was already 63 years old and had suffered some vocal erosion. ETC still can sing better than most but there is definitely some loss of vocal quality and it sounds like on one song “What’d I Say” that the song was sung in a lower key than on the original recording.

Here is the track list (* Billboard #1 country chart hit):

Somewhere Between Right and Wrong *
Your Love’s On The Line *
Don’t Make It Easy For Me *
Angel In Disguise *
Chance of Lovin’ You *
Hard Days & Honky Tonk Nights
What She Is (Is A Woman In Love)*
Holding Her and Loving You *
Once In A Blue Moon
Brotherly Love
Heavenly Bodies
What I’d Say *
Fire & Smoke *
Love Don’t Care (Who’s Heart it Breaks)*
Shadow Of a Doubt
I Can’t Win For Losin’ You *

This is not the album I would recommend to someone unfamiliar with ETC’s work as there are better introductions to his music. It is, however, always interesting to hear an artist in a live setting. I would give this somewhere between a B and a B+

Classic Album Review: Wanda Jackson ‘Salutes The Country Music Hall Of Fame’

Released in 1966 by Capitol Records (my copy is a British pressing on Capitol / EMI), Wanda’s album may be the first album to expressly salute the recently established Country Music Hall of Fame. At the time the album was recorded only six persons had been inducted into the County Music Hall of Fame:

1961 – Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Fred Rose
1962 – Roy Acuff
1964 – Tex Ritter
1965 – Ernest Tubb

Of the six above, Fred Rose was a publisher & songwriter but not a performer. The other five would today be described as very traditional performers, so this album gave Wanda, more commonly regarded as a rockabilly or rock ‘n roll performer (she is in both the Rockabilly and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame) a chance to display her credentials as a country performer. Reaching #12 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, this album would prove to be Wanda’s second highest charting album.

While no singles were released from this album, I frequently heard tracks from the album played on the various county stations around the southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina. This at a time that when Billboard did not chart album tracks.

Produced by Ken Nelson, no musician credits are given but I suspect that members of Buck Owen’s Buckaroos and Merle Haggard’s Strangers are in the mix somewhere.

The album opens up with the Hank Williams classic “Jambalaya” taken at mid-tempo. The song has a standard 1960s country arrangement with steel guitar and piano feature in the arrangement and the lyrics clearly enunciated.

Next up is one of my favorite Ernest Tubb songs “Try Me One More Time”. This was Ernest’s first chart entry when Billboard started its County Charts in 1944. The song was a crossover pop hit. This song is taken at a medium slow tempo that could be described as plodding, but which fits the song perfectly.

Yes I know I’ve been untrue
And I have hurt you through and through
Please have a mercy on this heart of mine
Take me back and try me one more time

If my darling you could see
Just what your leaving done to me
You’d know that love is still a tie that binds
And take me back and try me one more time

In my dreams I see your face
But it seems there’s someone in my place
Oh does she know you were once just mine
Take me back and try me one more time

“There’s A New Moon Over My Shoulder” was a huge hit for cowboy actor Tex Ritter in 1944. Again, this is a slow ballad.

Wanda enters another dimension with her cover of the 1929 Jimmie Rodgers tune “Blue Yodel #6” with its bluesy arrangement (nearly acoustic) and, of course, Jimmie Rodgers style blue yodel

He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
He left me this morning, midnight was turning day
I didn’t have no blues till my good man went away

Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
Got the blues like midnight, moon shining bright as day
I wish a tornado would come and blow my blues away

Now one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
Yeah one of these mornings, I’m gonna leave this town
‘Cause you trifling men really keep a good gal down

When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
When a woman’s down, you men don’t want her round
But if she’s got money, she’s the sweetest gal in town

“Fireball Mail” was a beloved and oft-covered Roy Acuff song with writer credits to Floyd Jenkins, an alias of Fred Rose. This song is taken at a medium fast tempo with modern 1960s instrumentation (no dobro, fiddle or banjo).

Here she comes, look at her roll, there she goes eatin’ that coal
Watch her fly huggin’ the rails, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her go look at her steam, hear her blow, whistle and scream
Like a hound waggin’ his tail Dallas bound bound bound, the fireball mail

Engineer makin’ up time, tracks are clear, look at her climb
See that freight clearin’ the rail, bet she’s late late late, the fireball mail
Watch her swerve, look at her sway, get that curve out of the way
Watch her fly, look at her sail, let her by by by the fireball mail
Let her by by by the fireball mail, let her by by by the fireball mail

Side one of the album closes out with another Ernest Tubb classic “Let’s Say Goodbye Like We Said Hello”, a 1948 hit for the redoubtable Tubb. The arrangement on this track plays direct tribute to Tubb retaining the three note guitar signature featured on nearly all of Ernest’s recordings. The song is taken at a medium slow tempo.

Side two opens up with “Jealous Heart” a 1944 ballad for Tex Ritter that reached #2 and was a top twenty pop hit. Wanda takes the song at a slightly faster tempo than did Tex (she also lacks Tex’s drawl).

Jealous heart, oh jealous heart, stop beating, can’t you see the damage you have done
You have driven him away forever jealous heart, now I’m the lonely one
I was part of everything he planned for and I know he loved me from the start
Now he hates the sight of all I stand for all because of you, oh jealous heart

Jealous heart, why did I let you rule me when I knew the end would bring me pain
Now he’s gone, he’s gone and found another, oh I’ll never see my love again
Through the years his memory will haunt me even though we’re many miles apart
It’s so hard to know he’ll never want me cause he heard your beating, jealous heart

Next up is “Great Speckled Bird”, a Roy Acuff classic from the 1930s. One of the all-time favorite religious songs of country audiences Wanda does a creditable job with the song but Roy Acuff she’s not.

“The Soldier’s Last Letter” was a huge Ernest Tubb hit from 1944 reaching #1 for four weeks. According to Billboard this was Ernest’s biggest chart hit (there were no country charts in 1941 when “I’m Walking The Floor Over You” was released, as one that was a big pop hit and sold (according to various sources) over a million copies. Merle Haggard would revive the song as a single taking it to #1 on Record World in 1971.

I think everyone has heard “The Wabash Cannonball” a song credited to A.P. Carter and popularized by Roy Acuff. Taken at a medium-fast tempo, and using a standard arrangement Wanda does a nice job with the song.

The final track is my favorite on the album, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues”, one of Jimmie’s lesser known songs. Wanda opens the song with a rolling yodel and gets to demonstrate her yodeling skills on this song.

I’m always blue, feeling so blue, I wish I had someone I knew
Just to help me tuck away my blues, lonesome blues
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me, someone to kiss
Someone to scold me, someone to miss
Won’t you be that someone to help me lose the blues
I really need someone to love me.

None of these songs are taken at a really fast tempo, so the entire album gives Wanda to demonstrate her skill as a balladeer. This is my favorite Wanda Jackson album and I’m grateful that I got to see her on several Capitol package programs where she focused on country songs and stayed away from the rockabilly stuff.

I am not sure why Wanda’s career as a country artist never really caught fire – she had a good clear voice with character and personality, she could yodel and she could tackle anything. I think she took off some years in mid-career to raise a family, and perhaps she never got the push from Capital that she deserved. Regardless, she was a fine singer – I’d give this album an “A”.

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+

Spotlight Artist: Asleep At the Wheel

asleep-at-the-wheel-1970Whatever the actual origins of Asleep At The Wheel, the holistic origins of the band date back to the decision by Merle Haggard in late 1969 to record a tribute album to the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At the time Haggard was the top dog in country music, with every single and album rising to the top of the country charts, and enough clout with his label Capitol to be allowed to record some albums of lesser commercial potential.

During the 1930s and 1940s Bob Wills had led hot string bands (the term “western swing” would become common after 1944) both large and small with success that sometimes dwarfed that of the more mainstream country artists. During the 1950s Wills toured with smaller units and by the 1960s, Wills usually travelled with a vocalist and used house bands that really did not understand his music. His health started failing in the 1960s, and in 1969 he suffered a stroke that forever robbed him of his ability to play the fiddle.

Haggard took the Wills project so seriously that he learned to play fiddle for the album and enlisted six former members of the Texas Playboys to join his band The Strangers in recording the album A Tribute To The Best Damn Fiddle Player in The World (or My Salute To Bob Wills). The album, recorded in April 1970, was unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in November 1969. The album sold reasonably well, reaching #2 on Billboard’ s Country Albums Chart (and #58 pop), and despite having no singles released from the album, the album would influence upcoming artists such as Commander Cody and George Strait and our October Spotlight artists Asleep At The Wheel.

Asleep At The Wheel (“AATW”) was formed in 1969 in West Virginia by a couple of Jewish fellows from the Philadelphia area named Ray Benson Seifert (aka Ray Benson) and Rueben Gosfield (aka Lucky Oceans). The band moved from West Virginia to San Francisco at the behest of Commander Cody. AATW was originally a country–rock band but switched gears upon hearing the Haggard album described above, becoming great students and disciples of the Wills art form now known as western swing. By the time the first album (Comin’ Right At Ya) was released in 1973, the transformation to being a western swing band had already been completed.

The band moved from West Virginia to San Francisco at the behest of Commander Cody but in 1974 Willie Nelson convinced the band that they should be headquartered in Austin, Texas. They have remained a part of the Austin music scene through the present day.

AATW has been comprised of anywhere from eight to fifteen musicians during its long history. As might be expected for a band that has been touring for forty-five plus years, there has been substantial turnover in personnel with band members coming and going (and sometimes coming back). The initial crew included Ray Benson, Lucky Oceans, Leroy Preston and female singer Chris O’Connell, but while only the 6’7” Ray Benson remains, the musicians that he has enlisted have always been top-notch performers. While in many bands the lead singer hogs the spotlight, whether on record or on stage, Benson has always shared the spotlight. Taking the lead from Merle Haggard, AATW has often toured with member of the Texas Playboys as part of the group.

Like Bob Wills before them, AATW finds its repertoire from a number of roots music sources, including classic western swing repertoire, original compositions, blues, “jump blues”, big band swing, jazz, roots rock, honky-tonk country and even pop standards. The core, of course, remains western swing, but virtually anything can become western swing in their capable hands.

AATW has recorded for many labels over the years with many different singers and musicians. Consequently, even if an AATW album features songs that they have recorded previously, the recording is likely to sound quite different from other AATW recordings of the same song. AATW has toured with many of the biggest names in music including Bob Dylan and George Strait, and served has the backup band for the “Last of The Breed” tour with Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. They have appeared on television and in movies, written for theater plays, have won many awards and issued many fine albums
We will be reviewing a representative sample of the AATW’s studio albums, but be sure to check out their live albums and DVDs. Also many AATW alumni have gone on to be successful session musicians and/or have successful solo careers.

We trust you have and will enjoy the music of our October Spotlight Artists Asleep At The Wheel.

Retro Album Review: Merle Haggard and George Jones – ‘Kickin’ Out The Footlights … Again’ (2006)

kickin out the footlightsBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

This was the best CD issued this year, a romp through some of the great songs associated with George Jones and Merle Haggard. On this collection, Hag sings five songs that were hits for the Possum (“The Race Is On”, “She Thinks I Still Care”, “Things Have Gone To Pieces”, “I Always Get Lucky With You” and “Window Up Above”), while Jones tackles five Haggard classics (“The Way I Am”, “Strangers”, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink”, “Sing Me Back Home” and “You Take Me For Granted”). There are also four duets in “Footlights” (a Haggard album cut that should ring true for every veteran musician), “Born With The Blues”, “Sick, Sorry and Sober” (an up-tempo western swing number often associated with Gene Autry’s pal Johnny Bond), and a light-hearted and amusing take on the Duke Ellington number “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”. This latter song features Haggard’s band The Strangers; the rest of the recordings are with a very inspired group of session musicians.

These arrangements are fairly true to the spirit of the original hit recordings. Curiously enough, when Jones sings the songs associated with Haggard, there is never any doubt that Jones is doing the vocalizing; however, when Haggard sings the Jones songs, you sometimes feel that you’re listening to a younger George Jones at work, so accurate and subconscious a mimic is Haggard. I suppose I ought to pick out a few highlights but the truth is I love every, repeat, every track on this album. This is country music at its best.

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.

Willie Nelson: the country duet albums

Whatever else one may think about Willie Nelson, there are two things that are absolutely true about the man – he has a strong sense of the history of the genre and he believes in paying it forward and back.

Take a stroll through the sales pages of a website such as CD Baby and count the number of country albums by unheralded artists that feature a track or two in which Willie Nelson does a guest duet or harmony vocal. As for duet albums, Willie has recorded more duet albums than most regular duos record in their career.

In this article we will take a look at some of the many duet albums that Willie has recorded with other country artists. We won’t be looking at the albums he cut with Ray Price (someone else will do that article) and we won’t be looking at the albums that Willie cut with artists outside the genre such as Ray Charles, Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsailles, Leon Russell or Norma Jones. This will be country music – period.

1) Willie Nelson & Roger Miller – Old Friends (Columbia, 1982)

Willie Nelson and Roger Miller (1936-1992) were contemporaries and old friends who both played in Ray Price’s band. Roger was a unique talent, perhaps the greatest entertainer the world has ever seen. Roger barely needed even a guitar to keep an audience enthralled for hours, but before breaking through as a performer, he was a solid country songsmith, writing hits for other singers such as Jim Reeves and Ray Price.

This album, partially recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Recording Studio and using Willie’s band augmented by a few extra musicians such as Johnny Gimble (fiddle and mandolin), Grady Martin (guitar) and Jimmy Day (steel guitar) has the sound of a Willie Nelson album but all of the material is associated with Roger Miller (Roger wrote all ten songs, one a co-write with Bill Anderson). Staying away from the obvious Miller hits (most of them novelties that don’t lend themselves to duets) Willie and Roger tackle Roger’s solid classics that were hits for others such as “Invitation To The Blues” (Ray Price), “Half A Mind” (Ernest Tubb) “When Two Worlds Collide” (Jim Reeves) and “Husbands & Wives” (a hit for Roger, Jack Jones, Brooks & Dunn and also recorded by many others such as Neil Diamond). The single released from the album, “Old Friends”, also featured Ray Price, and scraped into the top twenty. Oddly enough only three of the songs are actual duets at all (Roger solos on three songs, including the only novelty on the album “Aladambama”, and Willie solos on four songs), but they do represent an enlightening dip into the Roger Miller song-bag.

2) Willie Nelson & Faron Young – Funny How Time Slips Away (Columbia, 1985)

Faron Young (1932-1996), although only a year older than Willie, had already been a star for six-plus years when Willie hit Nashville. Faron gave Willie his first two big breaks as a songwriter: he recorded “Hello Walls” (a million seller in 1961) and he refused to let Willie (the proverbial starving songwriter) sell him the song for $500, lending him the money instead. At the time, Faron had already seen the preliminary sales figures for the song and knew the songwriters’ royalties would be thousands of dollars. Willie never forgot this and the two remained friends until the end of Faron’s life. Faron would have hits on several other songs written by Willie and this album features most of them.

Side one of the album featured six songs written by Willie Nelson of which three (“Hello Walls”, “Congratulations” and “Three Days” were hits for Faron). Side two of the record features five of Faron’s hits supplied by other songwriters (“Live Fast – Love Hard – Die Young”, “Sweet Dreams” , “Four In The Morning” ,
“Life Turned Her That Way” and “Going Steady”, plus the title track – written by Willie but not a Faron Young hit.

This album was released in 1985. By then Faron’s 22 year run at the top of the charts was long over, but Faron could still sing. Consequently, even though this album was recorded at Pedernales studio, the musicians are Nashville session men and the album does not come across as a Willie Nelson album, but as a true collaborative effort. Faron solos on “Four In The Morning” and Willie solos on “She’s Not For You” but the rest is duets including possibly the best versions you’ll ever hear on “Hello Walls” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”.

3) Willie Nelson & Webb Pierce – In The Jailhouse Now (Columbia 1982)

Webb Pierce (1921-1991) was the biggest star in country music during the decade of the 1950s and remained a viable star until about 1967, after which time his high nasal style permanently fell out of vogue (except in bluegrass music). Most observers have failed to see Willie’s connection with Webb Pierce, who never recorded any of Willie’s songs, except as album cuts, and never had any working relationship with Webb, and it is a bit tenuous to see the connection, although Willie’s vocal phrasing and pinched nasal vibrato seem influenced by Webb’s vocals of the 1950s.

This album features duets on nine of Webb’s 1950s recordings, including Webb’s mega-hits “Slowly”, “There Stands The Glass”, More and More”, “Wondering” , “I Don’t Care” and “Back Street Affair” (a sextet of songs that spent eighty weeks at #1) plus three more songs that appeared on Webb’s albums and one new song written by Willie Nelson, Webb Pierce and Max Powell , the bluesy “Heebie Jeebie Blues #2” . The album was recorded at Pedernales Studio using Willie’s band augmented by Johnny Gimble, Grady Martin, Jimmy Day, Leon Russell and Richard Manuel.

The only single released from the album, “In The Jailhouse Now” barely dented the charts at #72, but Webb’s voice had dropped enough in pitch to make him an effective duet partner for Willie. Both singers obviously had fun recording this album and I regard this as the most effective of Willie’s major label duet albums.

Willie Nelson & Curtis Potter – Six Hours At Pedernales (Step One Records, 1994)

Curtis Potter (1940 – ) is part of the Willie’s Texas connection, having served as Hank Thompson’s band leader from 1959-1971 and one of Willie’s circle of friends including Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and who knows how many others. Curtis never became a big star outside of his native Texas but he is an impressive singer and he and Willie harmonize well on this collection of country songs. Produced by Ray Pennington, the in-house producer at Step One Records, this collection features three songs written by Pennington, three written by Nelson, plus some outside material. This album features none of Willie’s band members, aiming instead for a Texas Swing/Honky-Tonk feel with outstanding fiddle work by Rob Hajacos and steel by Buddy Emmons.

For me the highlights are “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way” in which Willie and Curtis swap verses on a pair of Willie classics, and Willie’s solo turn on Ray Pennington’s “Turn Me Loose and Let Me Swing”. That said, I really like this entire album. It’s been in my car CD player for the last week.

4) Willie Nelson & Johnny Bush – Together Again (Delta Records, 1982)

Delta Records is a long-defunct Texas independent label that never had much distribution outside of Texas and had some of its inventory confiscated by the IRS during Willie’s tax problem days. Johnny Bush Shinn (1935 – ) is a long-time friend of Willie’s dating back to the 1950s. Both were in Ray Price’s band and have been members of each other’s bands at various times.

This twelve song album features ten duets plus Johnny Bush solos on “Driving Nails In My Coffin” and his own “Whiskey River” (taken at a very different tempo than Willie usually performs it). The album opens up with the Buck Owens classic “Together Again” and works its way through a solid program of songs including the Paul Simon song “Still Crazy After All These Years” plus Willie Nelson tunes “I Let My Mind Wander”, “I’ve Just Destroyed The World I’m Living In” , “The Party’s Over” and “My Own Peculiar Way”.

“Whiskey River” was released as a single just denting the top 100, and “You Sure Tell It Like It Is, George Jones” was also released as a single, although it didn’t chart (it is a great track). “The Party’s Over is a standout track as is “The Sound of A Heartache”, a song written by Johnny Bush.

The album was recorded at Willie’s Pedernales Studio, but produced by Johnny Bush. Willie’s band was not used on this album, so the sound is more that of a conventional country band. This album was recorded after Johnny was struck with spastic dysphonia so he was not at his vocal peak , but still he was still a tremendous singer, if not quite the ‘country Caruso’ (later medical discoveries would restore him to peak condition).

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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 & 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 & The Strangers – ‘I’m A Lonesome Fugitive’ and ‘Branded Man’

Merle Haggard released two albums in 1967, I’m A Lonesome Fugitive in March and Branded Man in August. Both were produced by Ken Nelson and appear to have been recorded concurrently at Capitol Recording Studios in Hollywood. Like his previous two LPs, the 1967 offerings broke with the day’s usual practice of building albums around one or two hit singles and cover versions of recent hits by other popular artists. Instead, Haggard’s albums consist primarily of original material written by the artist himself, occasionally co-written with Bonnie Owens, and a few select entries from other well-known songwriters including Tommy Collins, Hank Cochran and Liz and Casey Anderson.

The Andersons penned “The Fugitive” (also known as “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”), which had been released the previous December. It is noteworthy not only because it became Haggard’s first #1 hit, but also because it was his first convict record, a theme he would revisit many times over the next 40 years. Inspired by the popular television series “The Fugitive” doesn’t reveal whether the antagonist is guilty or wrongly accused, which contrasts with Haggard’s later prison songs, in which the narrator is usually guilty and remorseful. The version on the current CD is an alternate take but isn’t significantly different from the better-known hit version. Initially reluctant to discuss his past transgressions, Merle was persuaded by Johnny Cash to face the issue head on rather than giving the tabloids the opportunity to do so. “Life In Prison”, in which the protagonist concludes that a life sentence is perhaps worse than execution, is perhaps his earliest self-penned effort about life behind bars. Although “The Fugitive” was the only single released from this set, many of the album’s other cuts were possible contenders. “Someone Told My Story”, with Bonnie Owens’ prominent and familiar harmony vocals, is a particular favorite of mine, as is “My House of Memories.” There are two covers on the album — a remake of his own “Skid Row” which had been his Tally Records debut a few years earlier, and Jimmie Rodgers “My Rough and Rowdy Ways”, which is only one of three tracks on the album in which Merle did not have a hand in writing (the other two are “Mary’s Mine” and the title track. The original album closed with the spirited “Mixed Up Mess Of A Heart”, which Merle wrote with Tommy Collins. The Buck Owens influence is readily apparent on this track. The current 2-for-1 release includes two bonus tracks: alternate tracks of “Life In Prison” and “Someone Told My Story”, which while nice to have, don’t add much value to the collection.

Branded Man, released five months after I’m A Lonesome Fugitive, is a stronger set than its predecessor. This time around Merle relied a little more on outside songwriters, with Tommy Collins contributing three entries, and co-writing a fourth with Merle. The great Hank Cochran wrote “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. But the highlights of this album are the two singles, both penned by Haggard. “I Threw Away The Rose”, which was perhaps inspired by the 1962 film The Days Of Wine And Roses, was Merle’s follow-up hit to “The Fugitive”. Peaking at #2 in Billboard, it just missed becoming his second #1 hit. Instead, that honor went to the next single, the album’s title track, which topped the chart in September 1967. The semi-autobiographical number deals with an ex-convict’s unsuccessful attempts to wipe the slate clean and get on with his life.

Though it was never released as a single, “Somewhere Between”, co-written with Bonnie Owens, is a well-known album cut that has been covered many times by artists such as Suzy Bogguss and Keith Whitley, and is on my short list of favorite Haggard tunes. Tommy Collins’ “Don’t Get Married” is the best of the non-Haggard penned tunes, but Merle’s cover of the classic “Long Black Limousine” is surprisingly pedestrian and the weakest cut on the album. The album closes with two bonus tracks: alternate versions of “I Threw Away The Rose” and “Loneliness Is Eating Me Alive”. Both are quite different from the better-known versions. They sound as though they were recorded live in the studio, and I suspect that both are previously unreleased Tally recordings.

Because neither album was recorded in Nashville, many of the usual names are absent from the session musician credits, although the great Ralph Mooney plays steel guitar on both albums. Glen D. Hardin, who would later become well known through his association with Emmylou Harris, plays piano. Oh yeah, and some guy named Glen Campbell plays guitar.

This 2-for-1 release, available on CD and as a digital download, is excellent value and well worth adding to your collection.

Grades:

I’m A Lonesome Fugitive: A-
Branded Man: A

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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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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