Like Willie Nelson, Meryl Streep, kittens, and apple pie, Merle Haggard occupies a place in our culture beyond the scope of criticism. Over the course of his nearly 50-year career, he has more than a dozen number one country albums to his credit, and more than three dozen number one singles. Along with Buck Owens, he was largely responsible for popularizing the Bakersfield Sound, a musical antidote to the over-produced, syrupy records coming out of Nashville in the 1960s. And in the 1970s he was at the forefront of the Outlaw Country movement — ironic, given that Haggard is a genuine ex-con who spent three years in San Quentin for armed robbery before he began his music career.
All that aside, the thing that has always set Haggard apart from the rest of the country music world has been the quality of his songwriting. His best songs, including “Mama Tried” and “Kern River”, offered perfect evocations of time, place and circumstance. In the former, a convict serving a life sentence pays tribute to the mother who tried to keep him out of harm’s way. In the latter, a man looks back on his life and the lover he lost in Kern River. One is a rockabilly-tinged workout and the other a heartbroken ballad, but both perfectly meld Haggard’s plain-spoken poetry with his band the Strangers’ trademark jagged-edged country-rock.
Unfortunately, there is little on his new album that comes close to the quality of Haggard’s best work. His smoke-scarred and whiskey-soothed voice sounds great, and the Strangers are in fine form, but the 11 songs that make up the 35-minute long Working in Tennessee lack the insights and urgency we hope for in a new Haggard collection.
The album kicks off in fair honky-tonk fashion with the title tune, a fiddle-stoked hoedown in which Haggard has a chuckle over the idea of a rebel like him working in the mainstream of Nashville’s music industry. The next track, “Down on the Houseboat”, has an island twang as he sings about life on the river. Haggard gets more serious with the socially-minded ballad “What I Hate”, but he never lifts the song above simple-minded sentimentality: “What I hate is a statesman speaking out of both sides of his mouth / What I hate is a war still goin’ on down in the south / And what I live for is a chance to change a little bit of it all / What I hate is most folks don’t seem to care at all.” Noble sentiments, granted, but hardly worth the three minutes it takes to listen to the song, much less the hours it took to write and record.
Haggard gets at something deeper in “Sometimes I Dream”, which was co-written with his daughter Jenessa. An old-fashioned tearjerker, it features Haggard’s most heartfelt vocal on the album: “Sometimes I dream / Looking out through my window / Speeding through the night / In a long limousine / There’s a curse on my heart / I’ll never love again / I’m forever a lonely man / But sometimes I dream.” Good stuff, as it was in 1990, when Haggard first released the song on the album Blue Jungle. Ditto the next track, “Under the Bridge”, about a railroad worker who loses his job and his home. “Truck Driver’s Blues”, meanwhile, was first included on the album 1996, and the famous “Workin’ Man Blues” — included here with vocals by Willie Nelson and Haggard’s son Ben — dates all the way back to 1969, when it topped the country singles charts.
All this aside, Working in Tennessee isn’t a bad album. The singing is great, the playing solid, most of the songs, whatever their age, pretty good. Fans of Haggard will enjoy giving it a listen on their way to work, or on a cross-country long-haul drive. But one can’t help but hope that Haggard will find his Rick Rubin, the producer/executive who convinced Johnny Cash to strip down and go acoustic for his multi-volume American Recordings. That might yield an album that would stand alongside Haggard’s best.