Review : Merle Haggard - Working in Tennessee
PopmattersLike Willie Nelson, Meryl Streep, kittens, and apple pie, Merle Haggard occupies a place in our culture beyond the scope of criticism. Over the course of his nearly 50-year career, he has more than a dozen number one country albums to his credit, and more than three dozen number one singles. Along with Buck Owens, he was largely responsible for popularizing the Bakersfield Sound, a musical antidote to the over-produced, syrupy records coming out of Nashville in the 1960s. And in the 1970s he was at the forefront of the Outlaw Country movement—ironic, given that Haggard is a genuine ex-con who spent three years in San Quentin for armed robbery before he began his music career.
All that aside, the thing that has always set Haggard apart from the rest of the country music world has been the quality of his songwriting. His best songs, including “Mama Tried” and “Kern River”, offered perfect evocations of time, place and circumstance. In the former, a convict serving a life sentence pays tribute to the mother who tried to keep him out of harm’s way. In the latter, a man looks back on his life and the lover he lost in Kern River. One is a rockabilly-tinged workout and the other a heartbroken ballad, but both perfectly meld Haggard’s plain-spoken poetry with his band the Strangers’ trademark jagged-edged country-rock.
Unfortunately, there is little on his new album that comes close to the quality of Haggard’s best work. His smoke-scarred and whiskey-soothed voice sounds great, and the Strangers are in fine form, but the 11 songs that make up the 35-minute long Working in Tennessee lack the insights and urgency we hope for in a new Haggard collection....full text
BbcIf you think a guy might sound a little jaded coming to his 49th studio album, Merle Haggard should set you straight. Working in Tennessee is a sheer tonic: a warm brew of the charm that has distinguished one of country’s great heroes for half a century.
Haggard is famous for his hits – 38 number ones between 1966 and 1987 – but also because of what he stands for. There probably isn’t anyone in music who is more completely the real deal. And if there’s a quaver in that 74-year-old baritone, it doesn’t dim its ringing authenticity.
This is a man who sings Okie from Muskogee with rare conviction: the son of Oklahoman immigrants to the Bakersfield oilfields, and somebody who lived in a box car, served time in San Quentin, dug ditches and drove trucks. When he sounds like Bob Wills, it’s not a coincidence: the great innovator of western swing left Haggard his fiddle when he died. And when he falls naturally into the rocky honky-tonk of the Bakersfield brand of country, it’s because – along with Buck Owens – Hag invented that whole fiery answer to the slick ‘countrypolitan’ of Nashville.
Not that there’s much nostalgic about this album. It’s packed with ornery opinions, opening with a sprightly title-track that manages to evoke the spirit of Wills while taking a series of cheerful swipes at Music Row ("Water came in, water came out / Saw the Hall of Fame, floating about"). What I Hate and Too Much Boogie Woogie tell it like it is, while there’s a wistful note on Sometimes I Dream and Under the Bridge....full text
PastemagazineMerle Haggard is a textbook example of longevity: Over the course of his career, which now spans 48 years, the country star has released a staggering 76 studio albums and nearly 100 singles. By this point, Haggard’s albums are simple, straightforward additions to his catalog, serving more to subtly color the picture he’s been working on for decades rather than trying to paint a new one.
Working in Tennessee, Haggard’s second album for Vanguard Records, contains all the classic elements of his sound: country with heavy blues undertones, lively boogie rhythms, and song structures that focus on the singer-songwriter’s light California twang and honest, often humorous lyrics. Though the album emphasizes upbeat country numbers, occasional ballads like “Under the Bridge” and “What I Hate” give it a refreshing poignancy.
Haggard’s knack for entertaining storytelling has long been a central part of his appeal, and tracks like “Cocaine Blues” and “Laugh It Off” showcase it best, the former spinning a tale of a drug-addled murderer who never learns his lesson, the latter a personal, direct ode to the benefits of marijuana. Haggard extends the cannabis-friendly theme alongside outlaw country peer Willie Nelson on “Workin’ Man Blues,” where the two trade verses between slick guitar licks....full text
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