In his 27th Country chart topper, Merle Haggard is tired of toiling his life away in the big city and dreams of Montana's wide open spaces. Haggard was just finishing a grueling two-day recording session in Los Angeles when he went outside to check on his bus driver and childhood friend, Dean Holloway, who had been sitting in the hot vehicle for hours. When Haggard asked him how he was, he replied, "I'm tired of this dirty old city."
Inspiration struck and Haggard scribbled the line on a notepad. He kept asking Holloway questions, such as where he would rather be (answer: Montana), and incorporated his responses into the lyrics of the world-weary anthem. Less than an hour later, Haggard and his band, the Strangers, had the song recorded and he played it for his awestruck friend.
While Haggard was writing the lyrics, he wasn't picturing Los Angeles as the big city, but Detroit. The car industry there was facing tough times after a gas shortage a couple years earlier. "I imagined a family leaving Detroit and happy to be getting out," he told Marc Myers, author of Anatomy of a Song.
The band was already packing up when Haggard burst back into the studio and told them to set up again. He wanted to record quickly before he forgot the melody. He hummed it to his fiddle player, Jimmy Belkin, who then played the intro heard on the track without any rehearsing. Haggard delegated guitar work to Roy Nichols, along with Norm Hamlet on steel guitar. The singer also credits his band for finishing the song. "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."
Haggard listed Holloway as co-writer and split the royalties 50/50, amounting to around half a million dollars for the bus driver.
Folk/country singer Iris DeMent covered this for the 1994 album Tulare Dust: A Songwriter's Tribute to Merle Haggard. In a 1999 interview with Country Music magazine, Haggard said he and DeMent didn't get along but he was fond of her rendition: "Her voice didn't sound like anyone else; it sounded sincere. If I were a girl, I'd probably sing like that, or at least I'd try. She didn't sound like one of the slick girls of today."
Big City was Haggard's debut album with Epic Records. He was previously signed to MCA for five years.
This plays during the opening scene of the 1996 movie Fargo, starring William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi.