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The Fit That Led to a Country Hit for Merle Haggard

  |   News   |   13 Comments

Anatomy of a song: How \’Big City\’ was written and recorded in a matter of hours

By MARC MYERS – Jan. 23, 2014 11:41 a.m. ET

Merle Haggard knows all about hard living, uncertain love and workers ground down by depressing jobs. As one of country music\’s greatest living singer-songwriters, Mr. Haggard in the 1960s was an architect of the Bakersfield sound—an earthy, California-born style that was more firmly rooted in country\’s traditions than the polished productions recorded in Nashville at the time.

Mr. Haggard—who will perform Sunday at the Grammy Awards—grew up in Bakersfield but soon ran afoul of the law in the 1950s, landing in prison after trying to rob a roadhouse. As an inmate at San Quentin, he was in the audience in 1958 when Johnny Cash performed there, convincing Mr. Haggard to take his talents more seriously when he was released in 1960. Hits followed in the 1960s and \’70s that often pined for traditional values (“Okie from Muskogee”) but sometimes came with a populist twist.

In January 1982, the singer released “Big City”—a song that tapped into blue-collar frustration with urban assembly lines. “Been working every day since I was 20 / Haven\’t got a thing to show for anything I\’ve done.” The single reached the top of Billboard\’s country chart—and became his 28th No. 1 single. Mr. Haggard, 76, talked
about “Big City\’s” inspiration, how it was recorded and his little-known co-writer.

Edited from an interview:

Merle Haggard: In July 1981, when my tour bus pulled into the driveway of Tom Jones\’s Britannia Studios in Los Angeles, we knew we had a rough two days ahead
of us. I had just signed with Epic Records, and they wanted me and my band [the Strangers] to record 23 songs in 48 hours—giving them enough material for two albums. When we finally finished on the second day, I went out to the bus to check on Dean Holloway, our driver and my lifelong friend. For whatever reason, my timing was perfect: Dean was ticked off.

Dean and I had known each other since grammar school in Bakersfield, where my parents had movedfrom Oklahoma during the Depression. Dean and I met when we were 13 years old at a little theater where Roy Rogers and Gene Autry used to perform. Naturally, the first thing we did was fight. Once we got up off the ground, we became best friends and were inseparable. Growing up in the farmlands of California, Dean was the best driver I ever rode with. When we were teens, there was never a question about who was going to drive. He drove and I played guitar and that\’s the way it was. So in \’66, when my career took off and I started touring longer distances, I asked Dean to drive the bus, and he did.

From then on—until the \’90s, when he retired—Dean drove our bus. He had amazing instincts and reflexes. I remember coming out of Nashville one time in \’66. We were in an old Flxible going at a good clip on a two-lane road with no shoulders when we came over a rise. In front of us were two cars just sitting there—one behind the other. They were waiting for a wide truck to pass coming from the other direction.

I was sitting behind Dean rehearsing “Swinging Doors” and saw what lay ahead. I thought, “Wonder what old Dean\’s gonna do now.” There wasn\’t time to stop without crashing into those cars. So Dean sailed to the right of them. As we passed within inches of the first car, I could see two little girls in the back through their rear window. The bus leaned terribly to the right as we flew past and Dean managed to put that bus gently on its side in the grass. Dean saved those little girls, no one on our bus got hurt and there wasn\’t even a scratch on the bus once the tow truck set it straight.

Getting back in Los Angeles in \’81, when I headed out to check on Dean, he wasn\’t happy. Buses then didn\’t have much air conditioning, and ours had been sitting in the heat for hours with the engine off. Dean was sitting there minding the bus when I asked how he was doing, Dean said, “I hate this place. I\’m tired of this dirty old city.”

As a songwriter, I instinctively listen and watch for interesting ways people put things at bars diners and on billboards. “This dirty old city” sort of caught me. I said, “Mr. Holloway”—that\’s what I always called him—”I can see you\’re upset but why don\’t we take that anger out on a piece of paper.” I climbed on board, and Dean handed me a pad and pen that he had with all the other things he kept near his seat.

Whenever I work on lyrics, I hear the music as I write the words. The two go together for me. On the bus, the lyrics came real good and their feel sort of dictated the melody. I took Dean\’s “dirty old city” line and began to build a story. The feeling resonated because it was a time in America when things were breaking down, especially in cities. I thought about Detroit and the problems the car industry faced after the gas shortage of \’79. I imagined a family leaving Detroit and happy to be getting out.

I mixed in some lines about quitting a job so there was a reason to leave the dirty old city. But for the chorus, I needed a place where the person in the song wanted to go. I said to Dean, “You\’re in the middle of Los Angeles now. Where would you rather be?” Dean said, “If it were up to me, it\’d be somewhere in the middle of damn Montana.” Well, with Dean on a roll, we had that song done in about 10 minutes.

When we finished, I moved a bunch of lines around so they\’d sing right, tore the sheet out of the pad and told Dean, “I\’m gonna run inside and record this thing before I forget the melody.” Inside, the band was packing up. I said, “Hold on, let\’s do one more. I just wrote something and want to get it down.” The band shrugged and said, “All right, if that\’s what you want to do.” I ran down the song\’s melody and words for the band and told them the feel I wanted. I gave them the chords and told them where I wanted the others to join me on the vocal.

Before we started, I told Jimmy Belkin, my fiddle player who had spent many years with Bob Wills and Ray Price, to give me a good, strong intro. He hadn\’t rehearsed anything—what you hear is what he played after I hummed the melody. Then Norm Hamlet came in with his steel guitar. I didn\’t any play guitar on this one— Roy Nichols did. I just sang. We didn\’t have an ending but the band came up with one they thought I\’d like and ran me off as we wound down.

While all this was going on, producer Lewis Talley had gone off for a jug, thinking the session was over. When he returned to the control room, we were in the midst of recording “Big City.” Lewis was my mentor and I could see that look on his face. He really liked the song. At the end, he hit the talkback switch and said, “Fix one bass note and you\’ll have a No. 1 record.” We fixed it, and while I listened back to the tape, all I could think was, “Man, Dean-o just wrote a hit song.”

The engineer ran off a 7½-inch tape reel of the song, and I took it out to the bus. I had a big 7½-inch player mounted in there, and I cued up the tape. I said to Dean, “I want you to hear something—this hasn\’t been written a full hour yet.” I punched play and said, “Listen to our song, Mr. Holloway.” Well, Dean\’s attitude went from the floor to the ceiling. I said, “You and I just wrote a hit.” He was white around the mouth.

Dean said, “Damn,” and he kept saying that as we listened. I said, “Yep, those words we wrote earlier are already a record. This was your inspiration so we\’re splitting it down the middle.” Dean was a plain old boy and was never the same after that. He wasn\’t in my tax bracket—he was a regular guy making a regular salary and this thing transformed him.

I\’m sorry to say Dean died in 2009. But a few years before he did, I had a chance to ask him how well he did with “Big City.” Dean said, “Hell, that song made me a half-million dollars.” I felt good about that. Dean was my best friend. For the rest of his life after that record came out, he talked to himself about what we had done.

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13 Comments
  • Robert Beck | Jun 2, 2014 at 10:46 am

    Merle i remember the first time i herd one of your songs and i asked my dad who u were.He told me you were a country singer and i told him i whanted to hear more so he played more for me.There was a song i really liked and i played it over and over and that song was and still is my favorite working man blues.It keeps me going everyday at work when i get mad and whant to walk off i start singing that song in my head then i work harder.Idont whant to be on welfare lol.I like all your songs if it wasent from that song working man blues i would have been on the bread line.You keep in good health and keep playing your songs and if u ever come to st louis again iam buying front roll tickets.Thank you for your song.

  • Bob Thompson | May 22, 2014 at 8:22 am

    Why not come to Del Rio, TX…a lot of fans here and a lot of military…wishing you the best.

  • Margaret Maner (maggie) | Apr 27, 2014 at 9:35 pm

    Today is April 27, 2014, the day after I had the privilege of seeing & hearing you in person in our city of Carrollton, Carroll County, Georgia. How I did enjoy it. We here in Carrollton hope you will not forget us if you are ever in our area again. Wish you were our neighbor. We love you. I grew up on your music from your earliest records. Your visit here was like seeing an old friend. It was great!! You are only 3 years older than me. I am 73. You said to us in your audience that we are “nearly as old as I am.” You got it right !! MANY THANKS. MAGGIE.

  • Donny Gordon | Apr 6, 2014 at 9:31 pm

    Celebrating Merle’s Birthday.Playing every single CD i have.Happy Birthday Merle,

  • Skip Henderson | Apr 6, 2014 at 8:06 am

    been a fan since my teens 40 + years. You were a favorite of my wife’s and I. She passed a couple of years ago from breast cancer. A favorite of ours and mine to this day is My Favorite Memory. Brings happy tears every time.

  • john merry | Mar 15, 2014 at 8:53 am

    Through all the stupid decisions in my life I lived most of your songs that’s why your music is such great motivational tools not to live like that the one song I find my self singing while at the mill is big city but having a wife and three children I find that your song if we make it through December is the one song I relate to

  • Don Henderson | Mar 15, 2014 at 5:24 am

    Reading your story on how Big City I was reminded of how much the “business” and the “real” artist such as yourself ,Jones,Waylon,Willie,Wynn, Cash and too many others to mention has changed. It is no longer about the art of making music it has become more about a product,who has the publishing,who gets writers credit,who gets this piece of the pie who gets that piece of the action.
    If America were such as Great Britan you Merle Haggard would be dubbed “Sir Merle Haggard”
    I doubt if most new artist today even know their bus drivers name much less want to credit them for ANY inspiration of anything so thank you Sir Merle for being you.

  • Dennis Brown | Feb 17, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Inspiring story, thank you for sharing. It’s always good to hear how a song came together. Not to mention the life long friendship that you had with Dean. You could have easly taken credit for the entire song but instead choose to do the noble thing and share the limelight. Something you rarely see or hear these days. This speaks volumes about your character. Been a fan since I was a boy in the early 70′s and still a big one today.

  • Charles stepp | Feb 10, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    Other than being my hands down favorite honky tank singer; you are a friend a friend can be proud of!

  • maggiemae | Feb 4, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    What a beautiful story about you and your friend Dean,how awesome is that ? I think when you have grown up poor with hard times like so many of us from that era that when something good happens to us we are transcended to higher places and we are never the same and you just keep on doing what you love to do and I am so glad that you. All the best to you.

  • maggiemae | Feb 4, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    Merle I have listened to your music since you have been singing so that should tell you how old I am,I’m up there with you brother.I just want you to know the many joyful hours you have added to my life. You are one of the greats that’s left and I hope you stay around to come back to Columbia SC soon. It sure would mean so much to me to get to meet and greet you before one or both of us go home to meet our savior ,which isn’t a bad idea either. I love you Merle , May God continue to bless you with his love and goodness. and hold you in his hands. Sincerely , a devoted fan….maggiemae [ I always tell people that I am that older woman that Rod Stewart sang about ] lol

  • Rena Cooper | Jan 29, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    You had everyone rockin’ to Muskogee on the Grammys. Everybody knew it! You’r the greatest legend there is!!!–Or ever will be.

  • Kathryn Fregia | Jan 28, 2014 at 7:26 am

    I wanted to take a minute and let you know how much you have meant in my life. I hated that we lost Delbert. Knowing Delbert, I felt that I knew you. He used to get a kick out of me humming his “Chicken Picking” runs. He said everybody sings the words, but it was the first time he heard someone that could do his runs. Little sucker came to visit me and my husband, we weren’t home. so he broke into the house to wait. He even answered the phone when It rang!!! My husband and I favorite song is “Wake Up”, but really love all of them. Tommy met Delbert in lock up in the Prison band. Thank you for enriching our life.

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