In the early '80s, Merle Haggard's commercial star was about to be eclipsed by a new wave of country performers such as Randy Travis and George Strait. On this period's album's, however, such as 1984's IT'S ALL IN THE GAME, Haggard's talents as a singer and songwriter show no signs of abating.
As always, the lean, no-nonsense Bakersfield sound predominates, but an overall mood of pensiveness and melancholy seems to inform both the songwriting and the performances here. Softer arrangements, a subdued vocal approach, and themes of loss, loneliness and estrangement color cuts such as "Little Hotel Room" and "I Never Go Home Anymore." The tone set by the lilting title track and the aching tenderness of "Looking For a Place to Fall Apart" (featuring the voice of Janie Fricke) make the three covers that end the album--"Thank Heaven For Little Girls," "To All the Girls I've Loved Before" and Ernie Tubb's "You Nearly Lose Your Mind" seem oddly out of place. With these exceptions, the mood of the album is quite unified. In another artist's hands, IT'S ALL IN THE GAME might have been a mere crying-in-the-beer soundtrack. In Haggard's, it's deeply personal and emotionally compelling music.