Back to the Barrooms

Merle Haggard

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Back to the Barrooms Review

by Thom Jurek

"Memories and drinks don't mix too well/Jukebox records don't play those wedding bells." So begins "Misery and Gin," the opening track on Merle Haggard's strongest -- and second from last -- outing for MCA. While this album is deservedly known for its four classic drinking songs -- the aforementioned cut, "Back to the Barrooms," "I Don't Want to Sober Up Tonight," and "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" -- what Back to the Barrooms is really about is the wreckage caused by broken amorous relationships and boozy escape as the only way to cope. Produced by Jimmy Bowen with his progressive country style, he understood Haggard's wish to utilize horns and strings in ways not necessarily in concert with traditional country music -- à la Bob Wills -- yet to write and perform in grand honky tonk fashion. Other than Haggard's relationship with Lewis Talley at Columbia, the Bowen-Hag collaboration was his most successful of the 1970s. Haggard wrote or co-wrote the majority of the album, and, whether intentionally or not, it coincides with the beginnings of his troubles with his then-wife, songwriter Leona Williams (whose co-write with Haggard, "Can't Break the Habit," appears here) as chronicled in his autobiography, Sing Me Back Home. The swinging barroom stomp of "Make-Up and Faded Blue Jeans" reveals the kind of trouble a man can get into when he loses his focus and his inherent distrust in relationships based on "100 reasons for lookin' away one more time." The contradictions in love are revealed in how we love those who can hurt us the most in Curly Putman's "Ever Changing Woman," with its gorgeous low-end piano lines and Travis-style fingerpicked guitars. Like his best theme records, Haggard reveals all sides of the conflict and its paradoxical nature, showing that nobody ever wins when love ends. The drinking songs here also document the beginning of Haggard's beginning long descent into chronic substance abuse, something he didn't pull out of until the 1990s. Even "Leonard," the seeming oddball track on the record, deals with the meteoric rise to country music fame and fortune to the ruin and redemption of a close friend (Tommy Collins); it is fraught with the loss of relationships and resultant substance abuse as if it were an equation. This is underlined on the album's closer, "Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," which both Wills would have and Ernest Tubb did love. Hardcore honky tonk and swinging Western jazz meet head-on in a tale of romantic loss and alcoholic oblivion: "I could be holdin' you tonight/I could quit doin' wrong and start doin' right/But you don't care about what I think/I think I'll just stay here and drink." This album features Haggard's most consistent, inspiring performance since he left Capitol, and was the beginning of a creative renaissance, though the personal toll it took on him would prove considerable.

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