By Drew Kennedy

(LSM March/April 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 2)

“I don’t think so … don’t think I’ve even heard of ’em before.”

The question had been “Do you carry John Pearce strings?” and I had asked it of a late-teens salesclerk in a smallish music store — the kind you find in one of the medium-sized towns that come and quickly go along the stretch of Interstate 35 between Austin and Dallas. He showed me their inventory of acoustic guitar strings and I selected two sets of a brand I could both tolerate and afford.

“You’re a musician. I can tell,” he said, smiling at me from behind the glass counter.

I had noticed the signs of a young musician in him, too: the long hair, the ripped jeans, the vintage Merle Haggard T-shirt, even the unfortunate guitar pic necklace emblazoned with the Fender logo across its face. I confirmed his suspicions, and when he asked me what kind of music I played, I opted for the catchall description that most of my brothers and sisters around here use.

“Country. Or Americana. Or Whatever.”

“Man! Like Robert Earl Keen!” he said excitedly. “I was a huge fan of his back in the day.”

“Back in the day?” I asked. “So … you’re not now?”

“Nope. He lost me. Put sax on that one song on that last record of his. Sax! Sorry man, but sax don’t belong in country music.”

“But … you’re wearing a Merle Haggard shirt,” I pointed out.

“Hell yeah I am,” he said proudly, “The Hag never woulda done something like that. That’s the stuff I’m into these days. Real country music.”

I searched for a few fleeting moments, but the words of protest simply would not form themselves in my brain. I paid for my strings, thanked the kid for helping me, and headed for my car.

Merle Haggard’s Back to the Barrooms is probably my favorite country record of all time. Every one of the album’s 11 songs — the seven that bear the Hag’s penmanship, as well as the four outside cuts by other writers — is a masterpiece. The production is smart and stylish. The players turned in expert performances ranging from time-honored country shuffles to edgier, groovier numbers. And to top it all off, there’s Haggard’s voice, which sounds absolutely untouchable.

The idea of this “Waxing Poetic” column is for the author to share some personal insight as to why he or she selected a certain record as one of their favorites. Back to the Barrooms is certainly one of my favorites, but now that I’m tasked with explaining why, I find that it’s a difficult question to answer.

Here’s what I know.

The record is largely about one of two things: the first is love lost due to the abuse of alcohol, and the second is the abuse of alcohol due to love lost. I’m pretty lucky that I’m able to say that in regards to those two things, I am by no means a scholar, so I know that the subject material alone can’t be the reason why I love this record so thoroughly. It could be the melodies and sly turns of phrase that are the culprits, but I can think of a lot of records I enjoy that are written that way, so that’s probably not the exclusive reason, either. I think it most likely comes down to a mysterious mix of the subject matter, the writing, and the production.

I know, right? What a revelation.

Oh, and there’s this other thing: Don Markham.

Don Markham is all over this record. That name doesn’t ring a bell? Don Markham? That’s okay. I had to look him up, too. I’ll spare you his history, but I’ll tell you this much about Don Markham: he can play the everloving shit out of the saxophone. That’s right — sax. Don Markham plays his sax all over one of the greatest country records of the last 50 years. He played on a lot of the Hag’s records as a member of his backing band, the Strangers, but for some reason, his sax parts on Back to the Barrooms really do it for to me.

So, anyway, I’ve always been a little sad that kid in the music store gave up on Robert Earl Keen. I hope someone pointed out the error of his ways — hating on the saxophone, sporting his vintage Merle Haggard T-shirt day in and day out as I imagine him to do. But more than that, I hope that kid grew up to one day, one day, actually listen to Back to the Barrooms. Because, man, I would love to see the look on his face when Don Markham breaks into that first completely badass saxophone solo.

I guess that’s as good a reason as any to love a record.

Merle Haggard Barrooms wax poetic