My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘1996’

MI0000090327-1Merle Haggard’s tenure with Curb came to an end with the release of 1996. While on the surface, this album had the same austere packaging as 1994, the reality is that the packaging was much more elaborate including liner note and full song lyrics. Unfortunately Curb did less than nothing to promote the album.

As for the music inside, 1996 contained many fine songs although proved to be the first Merle Haggard album not to chart. Haggard’s sound becomes a little more jazz-oriented than the earlier Curb albums and there are some guests to liven up the proceedings.

The album opens with “Sin City Blues” written by Merle, Joe Manuel and Merle’s last wife Theresa. The track has a boisterous honky-tonk blues arrangement somewhat reminiscent of “Living With The Shades Pulled Down’).

Next up is the Iris Dement composition “No Time To Cry” a stoic look at some of the problems associated with growing older. Iris plays piano on this track.

My father died a year ago today.

The rooster started crowing when they carried Dad away.

There beside my mother, in the living room, I stood,

With my brothers and my sisters, knowing Dad was gone for good.
Well, I stayed at home just long enough,

To lay him in the ground and then I,

Caught a plane to do a show up north in Detroit town.

Because I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry.

Next up is “Beer Can Hill”, a Haggard & Abe Manuel collaboration about growing up and honky-tonkin’ in Bakersfield. Merle is joined by Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Bob Teague on this track, with Dawn Sears adding harmony vocals.

Well, I learned how to walk and I learned how to run in Bakersfield

Should’ve done time over things I’d done in Bakersfield

I tasted my first taste of romance in Bakersfield

I learned how to fight and I learned how to dance in Bakersfield
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Overlookin’ Bakersfield

Remembering my first thrill
Dancin’ on Beer Can Hill

Merle’s “Truck Drivers’ Blues” is a pretty standard county blues about the men who drive trucks for a living whereas Merle’s “Too Many Highways” deals with the choices a trucker and his family make – his choice of career and his wife’s choice to stick with him

Too many highways
Too many byways
Too many canyons
And too many turns
Too many bright lights
Too many long nights
And she’s one bridge I don’t want to burn.

“Five Days a Week” is Merle retelling the story he told in an earlier song “Working Man Blues”. It is a good song, but hardly essential.

“Kids Get Lonesome Too” sounds like it’s a song about kids but Haggard and co-writer Lou Bradley have something additional in mind, with the song’s narrator actually directing the song at his girlfriend or wife.

Merle and ex-wife Bonnie Owens collaborated on “If Anyone Ought to Know”, an older song from 1976 revived on this album. I cannot recall if Merle recorded this earlier, but I do regard this as good album filler.

“Untanglin’ My Mind” is a Merle Haggard song that Clint Black partially rewrote before recording it and taking it to #4. Clint’s lyric changes really neither added nor subtracted from the song’s merits. It’s a very good song. Haggard assisted Johnny Paycheck on his classic album Mr. Hag Told My Story. Here, Mr. Paycheck returns the favor:

And I’m sure no one will wonder where I’ve gone to,
But if anyone should ask from time to time
Tell ’em that you finally drove me crazy,
And I’m somewhere untanglin’ my mind.

And for what it’s worth I prefer Haggard’s recording to that of Clint Black .

The album ends with the very philosophical “Winds of Change”, Haggard’s most environmentally conscious song. Merle is assisted by John (“Seminole Wind”) Anderson on this song.

With my ears I have heard the eagle call my name
He flew in from the night to talk to me
We talked about his freedom and he spoke with great concern
He said, “Mother earth is aging rapidly”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing
And the land is disappearing more each day
Farewell my son, I must be going”
He turned and then forever flew away

With my eyes I have seen pretty mountain streams
Change from crystal clear to factory brown
The old bear shook his herd and through his eyes
He said, “I guess there’s no more salmon to be found”

He said, “The winds of change are blowing”
Telling me that I can’t stay
Farewell my friend, I must be going
He turned and then forever walked away

I’ve lived in the land where the wolf mistrusted me
He taught me that the stronger shall survive
Even in our world today, the weaker are the prey
And if we don’t fight for our planet she will die

And the winds of change keep blowing
Yet we turn the other way
If we don’t stop the wrong we’re doing
Then mother earth will surely pass away

This wouldn’t qualify as one of Merle’s fifteen or twenty best albums, but it is a very good album, with perceptive lyrics, excellent guest artists and solid instrumentation. I can’t decide whether or not this is a A- or a B+, but in memory of Merle’s recent passing I’ll go with the A-.

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Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Blue Jungle’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘Working In Tennessee’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

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

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

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

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

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

and America’s political leaders:

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

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

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