Out Among The Stars / Friend in California
[BGO Records (2010)]
Nothing will ever match Merle Haggard’s 60s-early 70s streak of critically acclaimed releases steeped in hard-edged Bakersfield honky tonk, but as evidenced by this double LP/single disc, there are still plenty of diamonds in his later discography.
Though the tempos are generally slower and the arrangements somewhat middle of the road on 1987’s Out Among The Stars, what’s worth noting are the gripping tales Haggard spins, such as on the opening title track. A failed liquor store heist results in the suspect dying in a blaze of lawmen fire, but ironically, that’s what he intended all along. On another (“Bleachers”), a burnt-out football player decides to hang it up, while “Almost Persuaded” finds a married man narrowly avoiding infidelity by seeing, obviously a subtle metaphor, a reflection of his wedding band in her eyes. Haggard’s slow, clear delivery and superior vocal tone provide suspense, rendering story lines believable. A few stories are told from different life perspectives, such as “My Life’s Been Grand” that feels like a euphoric swan song. Conversely, “The Show’s Almost Over” portrays a lonely old soul reflecting on an otherwise successful life with regrets. Then, seemingly out of nowhere comes a surprising, yet marvelous, trumpet-propelled rendition of “Pennies from Heaven”—the ’36 Bing Crosby classic—that showcases Haggard’s jazzman swagger.
Released a year earlier and sequenced second here, Friend in California has its good moments and is enjoyable enough, but it does push towards pop mainstream in places. It’s striking how beautiful some of the melodies are, as noted by the sentimental title track and “I Had a Beautiful Time” that bounces to a sexy Latin beat. “Texas” is another such beauty, swinging moderately with autobiographical references to Haggard’s prison past. Most tunes were written/co-written by Haggard and songwriting associate Freddie Powers, with the exception of “This Cold War With You.” The Floyd Tillman classic is just out of this world; a rich arrangement of horns, piano and fluid electric jazz guitar riffs that saunter elegantly along. The autobiographical “Mama’s Prayer” is perhaps the most meaningful of all—how a mother’s prayers were, on occasion, life saving. Even with its mild 1980’s sensibility, this reissue serves as a reminder how much better these tracks sound with the test of time. Worth checking out.
—Dan Willging (Denver, CO)