Despite having lost part of a lung to cancer, the Country Music Hall of Famer sings like he's just getting started. Haggard has just released "Working in Tennessee," his latest record and his second for Vanguard Records. Recorded in his own California studio with the backing of his longtime band, the Strangers, Hag turns in one of the finest recordings of his storied career.
Born in California in 1937 to working-class parents, Haggard was a rebellious youth, spending much of his time in and out of juvenile detention centers. As a young man, he eventually found himself in prison after a botched burglary attempt. Perhaps that was the wake up call he needed, however, because after his release in the early '60s, he began to remake himself as a performer. Drawn to country music from an early age, Haggard began singing in bars for a little bit of cash and all the beer he could drink. He soon attracted the attention of established country artists and had his first hit with "Sing a Sad Song" in 1964. He went on to record 38 number one songs and has weathered the ups and downs of a long career in county music.
"Working in Tennessee" opens with the title track, a swinging dig at Music City, and all the people dreaming of being the next big star: "Went down lookin' to be a star/Wound up hockin' my old guitar/Look at me, working in Tennessee." Merle is obviously having a good time, letting his band do the picking while he does the grinning. He takes another shot at Nashville later on with "Too Much Boogie Woogie," a song that derides the current state of country music. In it, he complains about today's generic country music stars, the "people pickin' on the Opry" that he's never even heard of. The song is also a bit of a farewell to an era, an homage to the generation of singers and musicians of which Haggard himself is a part.
Never one to keep his opinions to himself, Haggard's songwriting on this record is no exception. His views are right out front on several songs. Sometimes it works well, as on "What I Hate," a litany of complaints that range from shifty politicians to the enduring legacy of Southern racism. Such a song might simply come off as heavy handed for another, lesser, singer. But in Merle's hands it's hard not to find oneself nodding in agreement. That's not to say that the approach always works, however. On "Under the Bridge," the story of a hard working man who finds himself unemployed and homeless, the well-intentioned sentiment becomes a bit cloying.
It's not all politics and curmudgeonly complaint, however. Long a champion of the working man, Haggard and his band lay down a fine country groove on "Truck Driver's Blues" and on a wonderful reworked version of his classic "Working Man Blues." The latter features guitar and vocals by Willie Nelson and vocals by son, Ben Haggard. In fact, much of this record is a family affair. In addition to son Ben, daughter Jenessa shares a co-writing credit on "Sometimes I Dream," a simply beautiful new song that has the feel of a forlorn country classic. Haggard is so comfortable inside that song that it reminded me of everything I've always loved about his singing. (As if I needed a reminder.) Wife Theresa is here as well, sharing co-writing credits and singing too, most notably on the Carter-Cash standard, "Jackson."
At the age of 74, with a string of hits, his family and a solid band behind him, Merle Haggard sings like a man who has nothing to prove, but who still has a hell of a lot left to say.