Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
On the surface, Same Train, A Different Time is a tribute album recorded by Merle Haggard in honour of “The Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers. Nothing unusual about that; the tribute album is a tried and tested way for one artist to tip their hat to another, and Merle himself would go on to record tributes to the likes of Bob Wills and Elvis. What sets this record apart, however, is that it’s more than just a tribute album. It’s a concept album disguised as a tribute album.
It’s true that each track was either written or recorded by Jimmie Rodgers. But there’s something else going on here. These songs have been carefully chosen and sequenced to tell a coherent story, in much the same manner favored by Merle’s Capitol Records predecessor Frank Sinatra. The resulting narrative would make good material for a film.
In “California Blues,” our protagonist has a row with his girlfriend and brashly proclaims that he is leaving for California, certain that he’ll be fine because “I got a home everywhere I go.” The second track, “Hobo’s Meditation,” reveals that our hero’s California escapade has not gone to plan, as he now finds himself alone, homeless, and wondering what awaits a hobo in heaven.
On “Waitin’ For A Train,” our man decides to cut his losses and head back to his home in the south, while “Mother, The Queen Of My Heart” fills in some of his backstory as a reckless gambler. While on the train he looks at the sky and sees the moon, which reminds him of his sweetheart and how much he’s looking forward to getting back to her and putting things right (“My Carolina Sunshine Girl”).
“Train Whistle Blues” finds our hero in a foul mood, the cause of which is only revealed on the following song, “Why Should I Be Lonely?”. This track informs us that our hero has returned home to find that his sweetheart has left him for another man. Crestfallen, he considers returning to his birthplace of Dallas, Texas in “Jimmie’s Texas Blues” (his Texas origins having been previously established in “Mother, The Queen Of My Heart”).
In “Blue Yodel #6”, our protagonist begins to accept that his love has moved on, and seeks a fresh start by applying to work as a muleskinner in “Mule Skinner Blues.” He doesn’t get the job, and in “Peach Picking Time In Georgia” considers the types of work he could get in other states. He also thinks about finding love again, before his thoughts turn to reminiscences of his mother in “Down The Old Road To Home.”
These peaceful reflections are shattered when our hero hears news of his sweetheart and her new man in “Travelin’ Blues.” He resolves to win her back, even cooking up a romantic ballad for the occasion (“Miss The Mississippi And You”). However, after tracking the couple down, he receives some devastating news: his sweetheart has shot her new lover dead after finding him with another woman, and has been sentenced to death by electric chair (“Frankie & Johnny”).
We flash forward several years to find our hero living the simple life as a farmer. While he is still haunted by his experiences as a hobo (“Hobo Bill’s Last Ride”) and by memories of his lost love (“My Old Pal”), he is still able to look back on the whole adventure with a shake of the head and a rueful smile (“Nobody Knows But Me”, “Women Make A Fool Out Of Me”).
So that’s the story! It really is fascinating how much thought and detail appears to have been put into it. But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that this is also an excellent tribute to Jimmie Rodgers, with Merle backed by the ever-dependable Strangers and several top-tier session men. Rather than impose his signature Bakersfield sound on Rodgers’ songs, Merle shakes things up by making this a largely acoustic album. Pedal steel ace Norm Hamlet spends most of his time on dobro, lead guitarist Roy Nichols switches to harmonica, and Merle and James Burton stick to acoustic guitars. The result is a Bakersfield spin on Rodgers’ own sound from the ’30s, and it works a treat. A few of the tracks even feature Dixieland horns, which could be seen as a nod to Rodgers’ collaboration with Louis Armstrong.
Tribute albums often don’t get the respect they deserve, simply due to not containing new original material. Same Train, A Different Time, however, is a prime example of how an artist a can take a collection of old songs and and use them to create something entirely new and unique. Functioning equally well as a straight tribute or a sprawling song cycle, Same Train, A Different Time is 65 minutes of country music heaven.
Read more about Merle Haggard in our In Memoriam Feature.