Merle Haggard – Legends of American Music: Merle Haggard — The Original Outlaw (3-disc set)
What we have here, in 60 tracks on three CDs, is the first career-spanning retrospective of Merle Haggard’s hits and near hits, all the way back to “Sing A Sad Song” and “Swinging Doors” at the beginning, and, across labels, all the way up to “Some Of Us Fly”, that terrific duet with Toby Keith just a couple of years back.
As was the case with earlier Time-Life career comps in its Legends series (Jerry Lee Lewis and Ike & Tina Turner), this is an unpretentious, casually thrilling monument to a spectacular career — and in this case, to a song repertoire as strong as that of any singing writer in the history of country music. Practically speaking, this would be most excellent fodder for any car CD player for long, sing-along trips.
I don’t really know if anybody but a limited, self-image-challenged segment of the music-buying public actually responds to the whole “original outlaw” tag with anything but a surrendering shrug by this point. And I figure Charlie Poole was the original country outlaw, 40 years earlier — metaphorically speaking, as is meant by the title here. But I’m pretty sure that Haggard, understandably not proud of his hard time served, never loved being called such things at all.
As the succession of eclectic, timeless and life-filled songs on these discs remind us, what Haggard has been, and has been accepted as for decades, is one flexible, knowing, challenging song maker who never fails to entertain, and who can swing even better than those doors he brought up years before.
Think for just a minute of the indelible love songs (“Today I Started Loving You Again”, “If We Make It Through December”) which may prove to be his most lasting material of all. Then contemplate his sudden turns toward anything from a Bob Wills Texas jazz special, horns included, to the piano-triplet doo-wop balladry of “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star”, or the happy, sexy buffoonery of “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”. And then think back to his story-relating ballads of exquisite, sensitive detail, from “Grandma Harp” to “Hungry Eyes”. And this guy wrote “Sing Me Back Home” and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink”, too — from sublime to pleasingly ridiculous.
So, OK then, with this retrospective you don’t have to just think about them; they’re all here in one place. As eclectic as his heroes Rodgers and Wills, or his recent friend Dylan, Merle’s still out there, making more of them, and they’re never boring.