08 June 2013

Merle Haggard "Same Train, A Different Time"

Same Train, A Different Time
Merle Haggard
sings the great songs of Jimmie Rodgers
Originally released 1 May 1969

This tribute album has been on my radar for years. I never came across it on any format, though I admit I didn't really actively look all that hard for one. Wednesday night, though, I turned up a copy on vinyl at Half Price Books for $3.99. Score!

What makes Same Train, A Different Time work is the obvious passion that went into it by Merle Haggard. Here's a guy essentially at the height of his commercial career, taking the time to record a double-LP tribute to an artist already fading from popular consciousness. These days, Rodgers is known almost exclusively to music scholars and fans of artists old enough to have paid tribute to him at some point in their career, as Hag did with this album.

Sometimes people who know about my political views are taken aback to find out that my favorite music genre is country. The part of me that intended to teach history really enjoys the genre's longstanding emphasis on tradition. Every genre keeps its history alive in one way or another, but country does it more formally through the Grand Ole Opry. There's something special to me about the intergenerational relationships of country music, tracing cultural roots through time and space. Same Train, A Different Time isn't just an album of a recording artist covering songs of one of his influences. It's a history lesson, as much about early 20th Century rural America as it is a music lesson about the beginnings of country music as a formal genre.

To that end, Hugh Cherry's liner notes and album narration help to document the context of some of these songs. Cherry prefaces "Mule Skinner Blues (Blue Yodel No. 8)", for instance, with a brief explanation of what a mule skinner was because even in 1969 it was being forgotten. In those days, younger listeners might at least have heard the term from old-timers, but in 2013 our old-timers weren't even that familiar with it.

There's something romantic to conjuring images of hoboing across the turn of the 20th Century. Sure, the reality was rough and not at all romantic, but that doesn't stop the thrill conjured by these songs. Rodgers, like Haggard, celebrated the life experiences of his social class and peers through song. Cherry notes that Rodgers had never set foot in California when he wrote and recorded the album opening "California Blues", but what does it matter? Rodgers knew the subject matter well enough that his imagination could fill in the gaps. "California Blues" feels authentic.

It's certainly interesting to hear this version of "Frankie and Johnny", a song I know best through Johnny Cash's recording. Cash's version has a happy ending, unlike pretty much every other version out there. I've heard the Rodgers version lyrics elsewhere, but it was still surprising to hear Frankie gun down Johnny and be sentenced to death by electrocution! Cash's version also includes Frankie's sister, a character absent from the Rodgers version. I'm fascinated by these kinds of variants among songs of this vintage; "Frankie and Johnny" was already an old song when Rodgers recorded his version 10 August 1929 in Dallas.

The musicianship on Same Train, A Different Time is the other reason why the album is so compelling. There's an energy throughout all four sides of the album that bespeaks of the devotion to the source material on the part of both Haggard and the other performers. This doesn't feel like an album recorded for commercial purposes, but instead as something between a private jam session and a historical document. Hag loved the music, and he wanted to ensure its survival by lending his own star power to it.

Jimmie Rodgers was just shy of his 30th birthday when he first recorded "The Soldier's Sweetheart" and "Sleep, Baby, Sleep" for Ralph Peer in 1927. He died at age 35, 36 years before Same Train, A Different Time was recorded by Merle Haggard in 1969, 44 years ago. That means that this album is now closer in time to Jimmie Rodgers's life than it is to today. I confess, part of me was disappointed to learn that none of the songs Hag selected for this album were ones that Rodgers originally recorded in his June 1931 sessions in Louisville.

That said, I only recently learned that Rodgers recorded in Louisville at all and it's directly because of Merle Haggard and this tribute album that I'm now more resolved than I previously had been to truly explore Jimmie Rodgers's music. If there's any question how successful Hag was with his ambitions for Same Train, A Different Time, I think that's testament enough.