World Records, No. 13: Merle Haggard – ‘Back to the Barrooms’ (1980)

Last time on World Records, we took at a look at a career comeback from George Jones – an overall odd anomaly of a veteran artist actually experiencing career rejuvenation over stagnation as the new decade rolled around. We’re in a similar situation with this next edition, though the rejuvenation this time around stems more from an artist staying creatively fresh even when commercial success remained fairly consistent. Even still, there’s more than what meets the eye with it. Onward!

Back to the Barrooms

It’s hard to define Merle Haggard as an artist, and it’s even harder to define the quintessential allure of his material. I don’t mean that as a slight, mind you. It’s just that for as direct as his songs are in their respective messages, his actual approach is trickier to pin down. And I think one has to dig into the deeper subtleties to find the true connective tissue.

Some of the appeal is fairly obvious, like his warm baritone that takes cues from an idol like Lefty Frizzell but also carries a full-throated (and, dare I say, “haggard”) richness to it that comes from, well, experiencing a lot of life. That last part, to me, is the real nugget. He’s recorded a multitude of various songs in a variety of styles: confessional love songs, painful lamentations on heartache and loneliness from a troubled past, western-swing, blues, jazz, and, naturally, hard-core honky tonk. It’s rich and diverse, but there’s also no one way to describe his work. Much of the internal appeal is that Haggard’s songs reflect life as he’s seen it. And, like life itself, as we grow older perspectives change and adapt, and viewpoints of the world we once held naturally shift – hopefully to become more open and understanding than jaded, too.

Of course, with Haggard it’s never the truth verbatim, but his lyrics are inspired by his own experiences. And if I’m looking for the reason his career remained strong and steady from his arrival to the scene in the early ‘60s all the way to the mid-’80s … well, I’d say it’s because of the everyman quality of his work. Not so much from a perspective where he ever forced himself to appeal to everyone, but more from one where he tried to understand multiple points of views through turbulent points in history – all to reach the hearts and minds of all kinds of kinds. There’s a sincerity there that defines his respect as one of the most varied voices in country music history.

Today, however, we’re taking a look at a more introspective side of Haggard’s career. Judging strictly by chart success, his career in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s looked just as great as his initial run. That type of consistency is rivaled only by a handful of artists throughout the genre’s history, but it doesn’t quite tell the full story or suggest that everything was rock-solid. Not only did he lose two friends and idols in 1975 alone (Lefty Frizzell and Bob Wills), he also later divorced Bonnie Owens, married Leona Williams, and switched from his initial label home of Capitol Records to MCA.

It was more a time period of natural change above all else, but there is something to be said for how it affected Haggard’s sound and style during this time. Rather than opt for the rowdy, rambunctious Bakersfield sound on albums like Serving 190 Proof and The Way I Am, there’s something more settled and quaint about their soundscapes. I’d further call it a more contemporary feel to reflect the general nature of the era, but Haggard’s sound was an anchored less by gaudy synthetic elements and more in jazz – less in boozy swagger and more in late-night introspection, too.

And as far as the peak of his short-lived MCA run is concerned (before experiencing yet another career rebirth with Epic just a few years later), most people point to Back to the Barrooms as just that. In concept alone I can see why: an album that weaves together a mostly cohesive narrative about a lost soul stumbling due to lost opportunities, a loss of friends and self, and, of course, the temptations of one’s own vices. It’s a fairly standard concept for country music, but it’s also a far more revealing and personal album than one would expect – again, one has to remember Haggard was an artist who got personal without being autobiographical, though even this begs the question of how comfortable anyone would be digging into the various topics explored here from their own perspective.

It’s also, I admit, an album and era I’ve always somewhat struggled with, due to how much of an odd tonal fit this album brings with its material. It’s not a knock on the material itself, but rather a note on mood and atmosphere. Some say that by anchoring the sound mostly in softer keys and percussion for the quieter moments and an abrasive brass section for the livelier moments that it fits the mood of a late-night bar, where the party has ended but some people aren’t ready to go home and face reality quite yet. To me, however, it does come across a bit too clean and polished at points, which is a shame, given that I otherwise love his more pensive reflections on an iconic track like “Misery & Gin” as well as the title track and “Easy Come, Easy Go.” While I’m in nitpick territory with those latter two tracks, I’ll also say that for as frayed as this album is in concept, those are two moments that feel devoid of darker drama to hit more effectively for me despite aiming squarely in that territory.

In a way, though, I get it. This is one of those albums where the darkness isn’t quite going to hit as effectively without proper context, which is mostly informed by Haggard’s then failing marriage to Leona Williams as well as a general feeling of growing older in a line of work that doesn’t always remember to treat its older artists kindly. As such, it adds a lingering sadness that can’t help but elevate the material at hand for me, even if, again, it does feel like certain moments are afraid to push a little further. It’s a bit odd that one of the most bluntly brutal and powerful examples of things coming undone is the Hank Williams Jr. cover of “(I Don’t Have) Anymore Love Songs,” a flat-out admission that the love has died out and there’s nowhere to go from there.

It doesn’t mean the album is without those deeper complexities, however. The sad punchline of “Misery & Gin” is that he’s doomed to repeat his mistakes and fear of loneliness even in spite of meaningless temporary hook-ups that provide company but not comfort. And while it’s tempting to read “Ever-Changing Woman” as a love song on the surface, it’s not exactly tender or warm in its metaphors – intentionally forced, if anything, which does set up other tracks well like “I Don’t Want to Sober Up Tonight,” about pretending everything is OK and stable when it really isn’t, and the aforementioned Williams cover. “Can’t Break the Habit” is probably the sole holdout for love in that regard, but even it feels oddly strained in the delivery.

It’s an intentionally confused album about grappling with personal change, which is why I actually love the one-off moments in between that feel more self-contained and cohesive. “Make-Up and Faded Blue Jeans” wasn’t ever a single, but it is a well-known road song about being lusted after by an older, desperate fan and sort of just rolling with the flow as best (and as humorously) as possible. And then there’s “Leonard,” by far my favorite cut for serving as a tribute to would-be country star Tommy Collins (a.k.a. Leonard Sipes) that isn’t afraid to tell the whole story: his rise as a potential superstar, his choice to turn it down to become a preacher, his attempt to return to the fold later even after his opportunity passed him by, and, sadly, his alcoholism that robbed him of it all.

It’s never judgmental … just human, and able to remember him as the whole person he was, which also includes his role as a mentor and friend to Haggard long before his own success. It’s wistful and bittersweet, and a fitting choice to include on an album like this. And while I do enjoy the iconic “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” as a tried-and-true drinking song, I would have much rather preferred that solemn tribute to close out the album instead. Even still, this was an odd album to revisit, mostly because its strengths also act as its flaws and vice-versa, where it’s never about finding a solution to the problems addressed so much as weathering through them one day at a time and letting time heal the rest. And even if I don’t always think certain production choices have aged well, the material definitely has, which shows Haggard moving away from the rambunctious angst that characterized earlier hits like “Mama Tried” and “Branded Man” and toward something older and more mature. It’s an interesting window in Haggard’s discography, then, coming between those iconic hits and later ‘80s gems of his, but it’s as consistent and measured as ever.

Join me next time, where we’ll turn away from established legends and back toward rising newcomers … who, you know, are now legends as well. It’s a big one – George Strait’s Strait From the Heart.

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