Merle Haggard: Working in Tennessee

Written by October 24th, 2011 at 11:46 am

Merle Haggard
Working in Tennessee
Vanguard Records
Rating: ★★★★☆

Forty-two years after he released his hit song response to Vietnam protestors, “Okie From Muskogee,” Merle Haggard has lost none of his ability to deliver complicated, controversial musical statements. What do you make of a guy who suggests that you beat your troubles by getting some “Humboldt marijuana guaranteed to make you cough” (“Laugh It Off”) and proudly declares he will never be on welfare (a new take of his “Working Man’s Blues”)? A man who sings of living for a chance to change (“What I Hate”) and pines for the good old days of country music (“Too Much Boogie Woogie”)?

What shines through these recordings most is Haggard’s warmth and sense of humor. The title track “Working In Tennessee” is a triptych of the ups and downs of his career, ending with the line, “The water came in and the water went out/Saw the Hall of Fame floating about/Look at me, working in Tennessee.” The man has survived worse than the recent floods in Tennessee. And then there’s the hilariously disturbing and inexplicable afterthought – Haggard intoning, in his best Mr. Ed voice, “Now lay there and wiggle.”

In “Too Much Boogie Woogie,” Haggard talks about being stuck in 1963, bemoaning, “Hey that stuff they’re playing on the radio/Oughta be down at the bottom of abyss/There’s too much boogie woogie/Not enough Hank and Chris.” (Note: the lyric sheet says “Chris,” but he may have meant “Kris,” as in Kristofferson). The fact that this song is, itself, a first-class country boogie makes it that much better.

“What I Hate” is a more earnest and serious moment, and the most political statement on the album. Far from the lightning rod that was “Okie From Muskogee” or “Me and Cripples Soldiers,” this is a more unifying statement, and a practical one. “Now we cant’ change the whole, wide world/But maybe we could change our neighborhood.”

Haggard tips his hat to his musical mentors, covering a couple of prominent songs from Johnny Cash’s catalogue in “Cocaine Blues” and “Jackson,” the latter a duet with his wife, Theresa. The title track swings like Bob Wills. Willie Nelson joins him for a new version of “Working Man’s Blues,” singing and taking a solo (for which he slyly quotes the Beatles’ “I Wanna Be Your Man”).

Haggard’s voice is rich and deep, and while it reflects his years and experience, he also sounds like he’s in his prime. And when he writes about heartache and longing on a song like “Sometimes I Dream,” few can touch him. Merle Haggard is as compelling an artist as he has ever been.

 

 

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