Listen: Working in Tennessee
Working in Tennessee
Merle Haggard (Vanguard Records, 2011)
Merle Haggard has been a monument of American culture for almost 50 years. His life story is the stuff of myth. He really did grow up dirt poor in a home his father made from an old boxcar. He really did do hard time in San Quentin prison for armed robbery. And he really was in the audience when Johnny Cash played the first of his famous prison concerts.
This, his 49th studio recording, finds Haggard coming back from a bout with lung cancer. His vocals sound no worse for the wear, and the emotional tone of this collection is playful and without intimations of mortality. Working in Tennessee is also a collection very much in tune with the economic era. The Great Recession provides him with the perfect setting for songs like the title track, about a migrant worker doing clean-up after last year’s Nashville flood. Or “Under the Bridge,” which finds a laid-off Saginaw railroad worker making the best of his diminished prospects among the homeless.
The music is a marvel of instrumental virtuosity and light-footed swing. In the early 1970s, at the peak of his wealth and fame, Haggard took a left turn away from commercial entertainment. He put together a fabulous big band, took up fiddling, and recorded a series of tributes to great figures of country music history. Haggard’s band has been honing its chops for about 35 years now, and it shows.
A high point of this album is Haggard’s re-recording of his 1969 hit “Workingman’s Blues” with support from another American icon, Willie Nelson. The song’s lyrical tribute to the blue collar beer drinker, supporting a family with the work of his hands, is tinged with sadness in this post-NAFTA world.
The American manufacturing worker may be a vanishing breed, and the same may be true of the hillbilly jazzman. But they’ll both last at least as long as Merle Haggard’s remaining lungs.
This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 1, page 50).