Album Review: Merle Haggard — Working in Tennessee
“What I live for is a chance to change and be everything I can be,” states Merle Haggard on “What I Hate,” one of 11 tracks off his new album Working in Tennessee. It’s a simple statement that’s easier said than done, but one that Haggard – with nearly 50 studio albums, more than five decades on the road and 74 birthdays behind him – clearly takes seriously.
The song, one of nine on the album written by the singer/songwriter, joins the many other straightforward, sparse structures that make up the large body of his post-millennial collections such as Haggard Like Never Before and I Am What I Am, while echoing his classic working man catalog where modern day legends such as Alan Jackson often find influence. That cross-section of new and old is where Working in Tennessee fits snugly into place, combining elements of that original outlaw movement with Haggard’s current stab at settling into something new after recent health scares. In fact, the best bits of the album can be categorized into either the familiar or the familial – or, most often, a mix of both.
After kicking off with the title track, a witty Western swing about Western Tennessee’s love/hate relationship with its many musical refugees, three instances of instantly recognizable opening chords cue three familiar songs. If Johnny Cash sounded like he sang the song high on “Cocaine Blues’” titular substance, Haggard seems to be relaying it on the downslide of his high: “Come on, get up, listen unto me/Lay off that whiskey, and let that cocaine be.” But when he takes on Cash’s half of “Jackson,” he swiftly flexes his talent for mimicking country legends. (Tip: Search YouTube for “Merle Haggard impersonates Marty Robbins.”) Those two remakes are runners-up to this album’s version of “Working Man Blues,” where Willie Nelson lends his picking and singing. In this case, however, it isn’t the content of the tune that’s as interesting as the context: The song takes on a new meaning when Haggard’s son Ben – a guitarist with vocals reminiscent of a neotraditional-era Collin Raye – joins in on lyrics “I throw my bills out the window catch a train to another town/But I go back working, buy my kids a brand new pair of shoes,” personifying one of the nine reasons Haggard’s protagonist must stay on the grindstone.
But as fleetingly satisfying as these covers are as novelties on their own, the album shines brightest during these familial moments. Wife Theresa and daughter Janessa’s songwriting contributions lend personal gravitas to two of the album’s biggest successes, both built around Haggard’s genius knack for crafting narratives around normal. Gems such as “The door is always open to any old weary traveler/You’ll find some great graffiti here below” on “Under the Bridge” and “Sometimes I hate myself and wish I could scream/Sometimes I give up on love, but sometimes I dream” from the piano-backed “Sometimes I Dream” are crafted entirely around plights of the everyman. They’re classic Haggard, both timeless and of-the-times.
As per usual, The Strangers, his long-time band, sound simultaneously adventurous and right at home when coupled with producer Lou Bradley. And even on “Too Much Boogie Woogie,” when Haggard adeptly plays a cantankerous old man bemoaning the lack of Connie Smith, Hank, Kris and Ernest Tubb in today’s popular country music, there’s a lesson to be learned: Working in Tennessee proves country music can benefit from looking backward and forward.
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