Sunday, October 09, 2016

'Big City' Wasn't Your Garden-Variety Country Album

I'm not a country music fan, but there are some country singers I like, and Merle Haggard is at the top of my list.

I have assembled a pretty good (but hardly comprehensive) collection of Haggard's albums and, in the digital age, I have been able to combine most of my favorite Haggard tracks on a single CD so when I am about to drive somewhere and I have a hankering for Haggard's music, I can just take that CD with me.

I can be sure that I like every song on it.

But if I do have to listen to an actual album, "Big City," which arrived in music stores 35 years ago this month, is OK by me. I like every song on that one, too.

Two of the songs on "Big City" went to No. 1 — the title track, "Big City," and "My Favorite Memory."

"Big City" was Haggard's 27th No. 1 song on Billboard's Hot Country Singles chart. It was released as a single in January 1982 and was inspired by Dean Holloway, a longtime friend and driver of Haggard's tour bus. The story goes that, after a marathon recording session in Los Angeles, Haggard went to the bus and asked Holloway how he was doing. Holloway replied, "I'm tired of this dirty old city."

And a song was born.

Actually, I guess, the concept of an album was born.

Lifelong country music fans probably have a different take on this than I have, but traditional country music — it always seemed to me, anyway, when I was growing up and heard it playing on radios in the hardware store, the doughnut shop and the barber shop around my hometown in Arkansas — really was about country. Country life. Country people. Country values.

"Big City" was the first country album in my memory that was more about the state of mind than the physical location — in fact, when I was growing up, the where in a country song was nearly always a small rural town or a lonely stretch of highway, seldom a big city — and the title track of "Big City" captured the yearning of an urban blue–collar worker for the freedom of wide open spaces.

Returning to the story of how the title track was inspired, Haggard clearly was refining the inspiration in his mind during his conversation with Holloway (something with which I am familiar from my days as a reporter — I often found myself composing the article in my head while I was finishing an interview for it) when, apparently sensing that the urban–dwelling narrator of the lyrics needed to identify where he would rather be, Haggard asked Holloway that question, and Holloway replied, "Somewhere in the middle of damn Montana."

And a chorus was born.

Haggard wrote the song, but he gave Holloway partial credit; the royalties wound up being worth about half a million dollars to Holloway.

"My Favorite Memory" is the kind of country song that I remember hearing when I was a child. I couldn't have heard that song when I was a child, but I heard songs like it.

I can't say it evokes specific memories, mostly general ones of lying on a rug in the dining room or the kitchen, reveling in the warmth of the room on a chilly winter's day and hearing songs like it playing on the radio. It was a country love song, not the kind of song that speaks of drinkin' and cheatin' and carousin' but of caring and commitment.

"I guess everything does change except what you choose to recall," Haggard sang in one of my favorite lyrics on the album. "There's a million good daydreams to dream on, but, baby, you're my favorite memory of all."

Thom Jurek of wrote that "My Favorite Memory" was "one of the most beautifully sung and arranged moments of [Haggard's] long career." Although I haven't heard all of Haggard's songs, I would have to say that is true of the songs I have heard.

It is one of the best, inspired by the best elements of country music.

My very favorite song on the album, though, is "Are the Good Times Really Over?"

It didn't make it to No. 1, although I always thought it should have. It came close, just missing at No. 2. I liked a lot of things about it, but I guess one of the things I liked the most was that, although the title asked a negative question, the song itself provided a positive answer.

Haggard offered hope.

When I think of that, I think of another song on the album, "I Think I'm Gonna Live Forever." Sadly, Haggard didn't live forever, even though he claimed in the song that "Dyin' ain't on my list of things to do."

"Big City" was full of genuine Haggard classics — and others that should have been.

In its way, I guess, "Big City" was a harbinger of things to come. When I was growing up, most country music was kind of weepy sounding and mostly negative in its messages. "Big City" had a jazzier sound than most country albums — even today, when much of country music doesn't sound too different from rock 'n' roll.

"Big City" had horns and drums and piano that sounded like the barroom music of late 19th–century saloons.

Even the one song that, from its name, one might expect to be in that weepy tradition — "Texas Fiddle Song" — was more upbeat than most country songs.