A confident, supremely relaxed effort, Working in Tennessee continues Merle Haggard's renaissance. Although it might take longer to get into than late-career hallmarks like If I Could Only Fly and Roots, Volume 1, you'll be rewarded if you do.
Too Much Boogie Woogie?
"There's too much boogie-woogie," Haggard complains on the new album, but you wouldn't know it given the jaunty title track, "Working in Tennessee." It's a throwback to western swing that might seem old-fashioned until you catch the lyrics. "The water came in the water came out / Saw the Hall of Fame floatin' about," he sings. It's a whimsical tip of the hat to the flooding that hit Nashville in 2010 that, for one man, turns into his personal WPA.
It won't be the only familiar song you'll hear on Working in Tennessee.
New Riffs on Old Classics
Among the album's best covers is "Cocaine Blues," immortalized by Johnny Cash in his famous performance at Folsom Prison. This version is more conversational than Cash's -- and, really, who would want to compete with the Man in Black's tempestuous, proto-punk take? Here Haggard spins the whole story of murder, prison, and the demon white powder that made him do it all with the calm of a jailhouse confession.
Less successful, though still enjoyable, is Haggard's duet with wife Theresa (who helped write two of the album's songs) on "Jackson." It's just too close to the original number, with Theresa vocal delivery wedged somewhere between June Carter and Audrey Williams.
"What I Hate"
Haggard has always been the average man's poet laureate, and that comes out in spades with the album's centerpiece, "What I Hate."
The singer surveys an America filled with duplicity and indifference which, not surprisingly, inspires strong reactions.
What I live for is chance and change
And a little bit of it all
What hate is
Most folks don't seem to care at all
It's something of an antidote to George Strait's anodyne "I Hate Everything."
For Haggard, hate isn't a negative thing -- it's a way of sharpening his perspective and getting to the bottom of things.
In the song's most inspired turn of the phrase, the singer even hates what hate causes others to do!
What I hate is what I hate
And I always will
What I hate is
Someone mad enough to kill
Poignant, Lighthearted Tunes
The socially invested songwriting continues with "Under the Bridge," about a hobo who builds a private fantasy land under a bridge. And there's more wistfulness in the face of hard realities in the casually heartbreaking "Sometimes I Dream" ("There's a curse on my heart/And I'll never love again") as well as the Jimmy Buffet-ish ode to irresponsible amphibious living, "Down on the Houseboat."
Haggard veers into more broadly comic territory, with a little help from a green friend, on "Laugh It Off" (it's about marijuana), the fine trucker song "Truck Driver's Blues," and the aforementioned "Too Much Boogie Woogie," in which the Bakersfield country legend plays the grumpy-old-man card.
Oh well, he's earned it.
Working in Tennessee is country songwriting at its best. It's a worthy purchase for those listeners weary of the new music coming out of Nashville and others who want to reunite with an old friend.
Complete track list for Working in Tennessee
1. "Working in Tennessee"
2. "Down on the Houseboat"
3. "Cocaine Blues"
4. "What I Hate"
5. "Sometimes I Dream"
6. "Under the Bridge"
7. "Too Much Boogie Woogie"
8. "Truck Driver's Blues"
9. "Laugh It Off"
10. "Working Man Blues"
Best Songs on Working in Tennessee