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Merle Haggard Working in Tennessee Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

An album full of relaxed mastery, as well as grit and charm, from the country veteran.

Ninian Dunnett 2011

If you think a guy might sound a little jaded coming to his 49th studio album, Merle Haggard should set you straight. Working in Tennessee is a sheer tonic: a warm brew of the charm that has distinguished one of country’s great heroes for half a century.

Haggard is famous for his hits – 38 number ones between 1966 and 1987 – but also because of what he stands for. There probably isn’t anyone in music who is more completely the real deal. And if there’s a quaver in that 74-year-old baritone, it doesn’t dim its ringing authenticity.

This is a man who sings Okie from Muskogee with rare conviction: the son of Oklahoman immigrants to the Bakersfield oilfields, and somebody who lived in a box car, served time in San Quentin, dug ditches and drove trucks. When he sounds like Bob Wills, it’s not a coincidence: the great innovator of western swing left Haggard his fiddle when he died. And when he falls naturally into the rocky honky-tonk of the Bakersfield brand of country, it’s because – along with Buck Owens – Hag invented that whole fiery answer to the slick ‘countrypolitan’ of Nashville.

Not that there’s much nostalgic about this album. It’s packed with ornery opinions, opening with a sprightly title-track that manages to evoke the spirit of Wills while taking a series of cheerful swipes at Music Row ("Water came in, water came out / Saw the Hall of Fame, floating about"). What I Hate and Too Much Boogie Woogie tell it like it is, while there’s a wistful note on Sometimes I Dream and Under the Bridge.

But the mood is what’s irresistible. Sashaying through a bunch of tunes that showcase his craft, Haggard sounds laidback and happy. And the bounce spreads right through the band, with lovely fiddle and guitar work from Scott Joss and Reggie Young. There’s even a nod to the future on the singer’s famous Workin’ Man’s Blues, pairing Willie Nelson with Haggard’s 18-year-old son Ben for a cross-generational triumph on an album that is full of relaxed mastery.

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