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October 4th sees the release of Merle Haggards 49th studio album, Working in Tennessee. It harks back to my personal favourite record of his, Big City, which was released thirty years ago in October 1981 and contained his song “I think I’m gonna live forever”;
Merle might not live forever, but he shows no signs that he won’t, Merle himself says “Music keeps me alive.” In parallel, The Hag is keeping the music alive and that music hasn’t changed much, he hasn’t reinvented the wheel and his music still sounds true to him. This album sounds as good as anything he recorded in the 70’s and 80’s, a period when he had 38 US Country Number 1’s, largely down to the fact he is joined, as ever, by his long time backing band - The Strangers.
Working in Tennessee is very much a continuation of themes presented by Haggard over the years that gave him his tag as a “poet of the common man”. If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll be familiar with his disdain for Music City and that sound which ultimately led to his success in country music as he developed, alongside Buck Owens et al, the Bakersfield Sound which blew the Nashville Sound, and it’s music city producers stranglehold on country music of the time, off the map.
At the same time artists such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, (the latter features on this album as Merle revisits his signature song Workin’ Man Blues), were harmonious in developing the “outlaw” sound which encompassed the Bakersfield Sound. Haggard sums up his feelings on this subject with Too Much Boogie Woogie.
Haggard has had his fair share of second chances in life. Aged 20, he was arrested for robbing a bar and was sentenced to 15 years in San Quentin prison during which time Johnny Cash performed the first of his famed prison concerts. After serving 3 years of his sentence, Haggard left prison and launched his career. Cash was obviously a huge influence on him during his formative years, and Working in Tennessee contains 2 of the man in black’s hits, with Cocaine Blues and Jackson. On Jackson, he is joined by his wife Teresa Haggard.
Merle was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2008, and after undergoing lung surgery late that year he began performing again just 2 months later in January 2009. Haggard talks a lot about wanting to stay alive and enjoy life. This undying enthusiasm to enjoy life and making his music is encapsulated, and delivered with a life lesson, in Laugh It Off, something you can imagine he has done so with his old companion Willie Nelson a few times.
The mainstream country music industry in Nashville might have reverted back to its pre-outlaw ways, politicians are still politicians and the world is not all at peace. What I hate and indeed this album is compulsory listening for anyone who considers themselves a member of “the silent majority”.
Just about everyone should be able to relate to this album and even more so, if you’re a fan of good country music, you’ll enjoy this album.
Merle Haggard - Working in Tennessee is released on October 4th 2011 on Vanguard.
Free download of the title track "Working in Tennessee" available at the following link:
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