The Fit That Led to a Country Hit for Merle Haggard
Anatomy of a song: How 'Big City' was written and recorded in a matter of hours
Updated Jan. 23, 2014 3:09 p.m. ET, Wall Street Journal
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 moved from 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 play any 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.