The Story Behind The Song: “Big City” – Merle Haggard

In the early days of his career, Merle had performed in a lot of barrooms and clubs, and the order of the day in country music was the honky-tonk “shuffle” beat, most notably associated with Ray Price’s musical style at the time (Price later switched to a smoother, more pop-oriented sound). Well, Haggard did so many shuffles at the clubs that he grew to hate the style and vowed never to resort to that sound in the studio. But when Merle went in to record “Big City,” guess what? He decided to put a good old shuffle beat on it, the first of his entire recording career, and it worked. The record kicked off with the twin fiddles of Tiny Moore and Jimmy Belkin and “Big City” turned out to be an extension of Merle’s 1969 hit “Workin’ Man Blues,” lamenting the stress of the rat race and the precarious posture of Social Security.

Haggard believed that anybody could have sung “Big City” and had a hit with it because the song proclaimed what people wanted to hear: Things they believed in their hearts and were disgusted having to put up with, but skittish about publicly stating it themselves. The tune sailed to #1 on Billboard’s country singles chart on April 10, 1982. The following year, the “Big City” album was certified gold on June 11, 1983, becoming Merle’s first gold album in nine years. It was the third of his career after a couple of “greatest hits” packages on Capitol.

Haggard followed “Big City” with another track from the album called “Are The Good Times Really Over,” yet another commentary on the poor state of the American economy (a frequently-used topic in his songs). Peaking at #2, its melody was similar to “My Favorite Memory,” the “Big City” album’s first single and Merle’s first of twelve #1 hits for the Epic label (in all, he scored 38 chart-toppers, mostly for Capitol). With the similarity in melodies, it’s not surprising that both “Are The Good Times Really Over” and “My Favorite Memory” were written the same day.

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