Merle Haggard is a textbook example of longevity: Over the course of his career, which now spans 48 years, the country star has released a staggering 76 studio albums and nearly 100 singles. By this point, Haggard’s albums are simple, straightforward additions to his catalog, serving more to subtly color the picture he’s been working on for decades rather than trying to paint a new one.
Working in Tennessee, Haggard’s second album for Vanguard Records, contains all the classic elements of his sound: country with heavy blues undertones, lively boogie rhythms, and song structures that focus on the singer-songwriter’s light California twang and honest, often humorous lyrics. Though the album emphasizes upbeat country numbers, occasional ballads like “Under the Bridge” and “What I Hate” give it a refreshing poignancy.
Haggard’s knack for entertaining storytelling has long been a central part of his appeal, and tracks like “Cocaine Blues” and “Laugh It Off” showcase it best, the former spinning a tale of a drug-addled murderer who never learns his lesson, the latter a personal, direct ode to the benefits of marijuana. Haggard extends the cannabis-friendly theme alongside outlaw country peer Willie Nelson on “Workin’ Man Blues,” where the two trade verses between slick guitar licks.
Another crucial element of Haggard’s sound is his unflappably professional backing band, Working in Tennessee no exception. Throughout the album, the melodies are sharp, tasteful and refined, with airtight interplay in the rhythm section and reliable fiddle and pedal steel textures. Lead guitarist Reggie Young in particular is given ample room to shine, supplying jazzy solos and breaks that, though technically dazzling, are never overstated. Haggard’s band often includes his family: his son Ben Haggard lends his guitar chops to several cuts, while “Jackson,” an endearing duet with wife Theresa, provides an appropriate close to the album.
Working in Tennessee is by no means new terrain for Haggard, but at 74 years old the veteran country artist still has fire in his belly, and he writes and plays with purpose and consistency—meaning the album won’t rope in new listeners, but those who’ve loved him all these years will find plenty to sink their teeth into.