On his classic album Mama Tried, ex-convict Merle Haggard covered Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” with a ferocity and conviction that surpassed even Cash’s original. Haggard covers two more Cash classics on his latest album, Working In Tennessee, and the contrast between the vengeful fire of old and the mellowness of today could not be more pronounced. Haggard doesn’t rage through “Cocaine Blues” so much as he leisurely rambles through a perversely mellow take on an outlaw classic. When Haggard admonishes listeners to stay away from that cocaine and let that whiskey be, he actually sounds like someone who has been following his own advice for a while. “Jackson,” meanwhile, serves as an unfortunate showcase for the song-stylings of Merle’s wife, Theresa: This misguided cover evokes the same train-wreck fascination as Hank Williams’ ill-thought-out debuts with his vocally challenged then-wife Audrey.
Haggard is on surer footing with his own material: The title track gets the album off to an agreeably peppy start, with Haggard happily channeling Bob Wills as he leads his band through a zippy Western-swing workout. Otherwise, Working In Tennessee is often sleepy to the point of being narcoleptic. Still, even when he strains to hit notes, which he does often, Haggard sounds like he’s enjoying himself. At this point, he’s more than earned the right to make an album that makes him happy, even if it adds little to his formidable legacy.