Remember “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me,” the two Merle Haggard anthems that served as right-wing rallying cries during the volatile turn of this decade? Sure, you do. Remember Someday We’ll Look Back, the follow-up LP? Probably not, because it didn’t include anything as easy to get a handle on, born as it was out of the inner turmoil resulting from Haggard’s new notoriety. With its troubled love songs and starkly autobiographical numbers about growing up poor and Okie in a converted Bakersfield boxcar, the album served notice that Haggard wasn’t about to settle into a comfortable niche as every reactionary’s pet cracker. He was much more complex than that.
I’m reminded of Someday We’ll Look Back because Serving 190 Proof, for whatever reasons, is clearly Haggard’s most personal record since then. He’s written more originals than usual here, and while none is as overtly autobiographical as, say, “Tulare Dust,” there’s a palpable mood of melancholy and restlessness, of vague but nagging dissatisfactions, that perfectly echoes today’s times. Though the optimistic “Roses in the Winter” provides an impressive finale, the tunes that really ring true are “Footlights” (with its Bill Withers-like electric-piano intro), the bluesy “Got Lonely Too Early This Morning” and “I Didn’t Mean to Love You,” plus “Driftwood” and “I Can’t Get Away,” opposite sides of the same coin.
There are a couple of less effective cuts tucked away on side two, but on most of Serving 190 Proof, Merle Haggard is writing and singing as if these songs meant more to him than any he’s done in years. His band is also in fine form, helping to create a no-frills LP that concedes nothing to either trendy Outlawry or the rising tides of MOR country music. As he says on one track: “I stand right here where I’m at/’Cuz I wear my own kind of hat.”
It’s a pretty good fit, too.