Part III of our look into the career of Merle Haggard covers the years from 1978 to 1987. During this timeframe he went from a legitimate to a fading superstar. While his work had been uneven in the late 1970s, he had a strong return to form in the early 1980s.
51. “That’s the Way it Was in ’51.” This song serves as the title track of the second album that Capital Records released after Haggard signed with MCA. Commercially, this 1978 release got lost in the shuffle, a shame since this is a flawless slice of Hank and Lefty inspired nostalgia. Or, in Merle’s words, 1951 was a big year for a “drive-in rest’rant carhop.”
52. “It’s Been a Great Afternoon.” The Starland Vocal Band didn’t corner the afternoon delight market in the 1970s. Merle nips tequila, sucks wine, survives a hangover, then heartily chuckles about his post lunch exploits. Haggard followed this #2 hit with a Top Ten sexually charged duet with then wife Leona Williams called “The Bull and The Beaver.” It’s as subtle as the title sounds.
53. “The Immigrant.” Merle came from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun…wait, wrong song. This 1978 album cut juxtaposes the mansions of American ranchers versus the difficulties of the Mexican immigrants who perform the labor. This could have never been a hit due to the subject matter, but it certainly sounds like one.
54. “Red Bandana.” “Red Bandana” details the life of a musician who loves the road more than he does his significant other. Both parties know that the man who is “forty-one going on twenty-two” is never going to change. A more lively tune than the subject matter suggests and a Top Five country hit.
55. “My Own Kind of Hat.” Haggard’s last hit of the 1970’s was a stomping waltz about individuality. There’s some pretty raw fiddle work on this catchy sing along tune. Haggard tosses in a Bob Wills reference before the fade out.
56. “Wake Up.” This 1980 album cut chronicles the emotions of a man whose wife passed on long before he was ready to see her go. He didn’t stop loving her today.
57. “Misery and Gin.” While Haggard continued to have hits throughout the late 1970s, his first #1 since 1976’s “Cherokee Maiden” was 1980’s slight comedy track “Bar Room Buddies,” recorded with Clint Eastwood. “Misery and Gin,” penned by Snuff Garrett and John Durrill, put Merle in a familiar place – “looking at the world through the bottom of a glass.”
58. “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.” While the production of “Misery and Gin” was comparatively lush, “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” is a return to a more traditional country, if Western swing inspired, sound. A #1 country hit and one of Haggard’s strongest releases of the 1980s.
59. “Rainbow Stew.” Merle updated the spirit Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” on the hoedown “Rainbow Stew,” where dreams include drinking free Bubble-Up and chewing on rainbows. It’s a hippie world filled with love and peace, but “you don’t have to get high to be happy.” A huge, cackling laugh punctuates the ending.
60. “My Favorite Memory.” A slow paced, beautiful song, where every vacation and good time fails to successfully compete with the joyful memory of first meeting his lover. Haggard really returned to his A grade form in the early 1980s.
61. “Big City.” Dean Holloway, Haggard’s bus driver, got a co-writing credit on this song, by simply responding after asked how he felt after two days in Los Angeles with “I’m tired of this dirty old city.” An upbeat shuffle – check out the twin fiddles on the intro and enjoy the walking bass feel. Merle’s ready to give up social security if that means a return to rural life. (I’ll take both). This album title track and the previous entry were both #1 singles.
62. “You Don’t Have Very Far to Go.” Haggard re-recorded this 1967 album track in 1981, which was written with country trucker song specialist Red Simpson. While the original version was a mid-tempo Bakersfield special, Haggard slowed down the tempo to focus on the heartbreak in 1981. He could really lay into a lyric when the spirit moved him.
63. “Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver).” The fourth entry from the 1981 “Big City” album, this #2 hit shows how Merle’s voice deepened as he got older, but also gave his material more weight. This is a mournful look at progress. You know, a woman could really throw a decent meal together before we got those damn microwaves.
64. “I Always Get Lucky with You.” I’m probably digging too hard into the “Big City” album, but this track sounds like a pre-rock ‘n’ roll, Frank Sinatra jazz ballad. Never a single for Haggard, George Jones recorded this song in 1983 and had his last #1 country single with it. Speaking of George…
65. “Yesterday’s Wine.” A Willie Nelson composition, recorded by Haggard and George Jones for the 1982 duet album “A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine.” Nelson’s lyric is a bit impressionistic for mainstream country, but with two legends bearing down hard on the chorus, this became a #1 single.
66. “Shopping for Dresses.” The two major hits from the 1982 album “Going Where the Lonely Go” were the title track and “You Take Me for Granted,” written by Haggard’s unhappy, soon to be ex-wife Leona Williams. “Shopping for Dresses” has a strange theme, Merle is shopping for dresses for a woman who he wishes that he had. Happiness is a complete men and women’s wardrobe in the closet.
67. “Pancho and Lefty.” “Pancho and Lefty” was a last minute addition and became the title track to Haggard’s 1983 duet album with Willie Nelson. Townes Van Zandt’s cryptic tale of two outlaw spirits was tailor made for the two country legends. Yet another #1 country hit.
68. “Half a Man.” Another duet from the “Pancho and Lefty” album, Merle takes the first and third verses on this Willie Nelson composition that the songwriter took to #25 in 1963. This moves at a snail’s pace, but you can savor every second.
69. “That’s the Way Love Goes.” A ballad written by Lefty Frizzell and Sanger D. Shafer, Johnny Rodriguez scored a #1 hit with this song in 1974. Haggard’s version took the simple, sweet love song back to #1 in 1983. Check out Lefty’s version, then Haggard’s – he really outperformed his hero on this one.
70. “Kern River.” Haggard released four consecutive #1 singles after “That’s the Way Love Goes,” but 1985’s lost love “Kern River” has an emotional depth that, for example, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room” lacked. A ghostly, eerie performance and a #10 country hit.
71. “Big Butter and Egg Man,” Originally recorded by Louis Armstrong in 1926, Haggard unsurprisingly turns this into a first rate Western swing homage with a touch of Dixieland jazz. Check out the subtle sigh in the background after Haggard promises repeated deliveries.
72. “Gone with the Wind.” A deep album cut from a live record that not many people heard (1985’s “Amber Waves of Grain”), Merle is like Clark Gable on this Dennis Barney composition – gone with the wind. Civil War analogies always work in country music.
73. “I Had A Beautiful Time.” Haggard went to #5 on the country charts on this 1986 release where his woman pours out his feelings and he pours the wine. What it lacks in substance, it makes up in pleasantness.
74. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Country radio was going through a generational shift in the 1980s and artists such as George Jones, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Merle started getting less airplay as the decade progressed. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” isn’t the nursery rhyme, it’s a shimmering pop song that sounds like a doo wop ballad. This was Haggard’s last #1 single.
75. “Thirty Again.” On this 1987 album cut, Merle dreams about taking two decades off of his personal clock. While he was only fifty when he recorded this song, after twenty years of being in the spotlight and having an unhealthy lifestyle, he seemed older. He probably instinctively knew that it would be impossible to replicate what he had done in the past. However, as Part IV will show, he had plenty of good work left in him.
I was happier because I knew I was happy
a snapshot of big hits and high tides, mostly high tides.
There is just a lot to love
the sound seemed to erupt from every side of the room
still on top
“danceable music for the end of days”
contracts its world in Nashisms
let’s take what we are offered
It’s the music, stupid