Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Merle Haggard

  • The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard [Capitol, 1972] B+
  • Presents His 30th Album [Capitol, 1974] B+
  • Serving 190 Proof [MCA, 1979] B+
  • The Way I Am [MCA, 1980] B+
  • Big City [Epic, 1981] B
  • Going Where the Lonely Go [Epic, 1982] C+
  • His Epic Hits--The First Eleven--To Be Continued . . . [Epic, 1984] B-
  • His Best [MCA, 1985] B+
  • Songwriter [MCA, 1985] B
  • A Friend in California [Epic, 1985] B+
  • Chill Factor [Epic, 1987] B-
  • 5:01 Blues [Epic, 1989] C+
  • Capitol Collectors' Series [Capitol, 1990] A-
  • More of the Best [Rhino, 1990] A-
  • If I Could Only Fly [Epitaph, 2000] A-
  • Roots Volume 1 [Anti-, 2001] **
  • Like Never Before [Hag, 2003] **
  • Unforgettable [Capitol, 2004] Choice Cuts
  • The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years [Epic/Legacy, 2004]
  • Chicago Wind [Capitol, 2005] ***
  • I Am What I Am [Vanguard, 2010] B+
  • Working in Tennessee [Vanguard, 2011] A-

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Best of the Best of Merle Haggard [Capitol, 1972]
A misnomer--they mean The Safest of the Best, or Something for Everybody. No "Lonesome Fugitive" or "Sing Me Back Home" or "Branded Man," but both of his patriotic chores, "The Fightin' Side of Me" studio and "Okie From Muskogee" live (for the third time out of three on LP). Also: "Every Fool Has a String Section," I mean "Rainbow," and "No Reason to Quit," where his timbre, which has been softening perceptibly over the years, breaks definitively into self-pity. Plus lots of good stuff, of course, but still . . . B+

Presents His 30th Album [Capitol, 1974]
The man has been making them for less than a decade, and thirty is too damn many. But this is clearly where Haggard wants to show off his range, and the display, featuring more original songs than he's put in one place for a long time, is pretty impressive. There's a rip-roaring infidelity lyric that's definitely one of his genius pieces--"Old Man From the Mountain," it's called, complete with bluegrass shading. And though after that only "Honky Tonk Nighttime Man" and the Bob Wills/Lefty Frizzell cover are liable to be remembered, just about everything else is liable to be enjoyed. B+

Serving 190 Proof [MCA, 1979]
Its impeccable simplicity and sensitivity gives Haggard's fourth and best album for MCA an autumnal feel reminiscent of recent comebacks by Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Granted, autumnal country music is easier to come by than autumnal rock and roll. But for Haggard, a mere forty-one but feeling it, the effect has thematic repercussions--and he's written a batch of wise songs to flesh it out. B+

The Way I Am [MCA, 1980]
"Wake Up," a devastating final-night plea that's one of Haggard's few great love songs, is the only original that transcends his usual poses, with "Sky-Bo"--"That's a new kind of hobo for planes"--the most cloying offender. But Haggard's chief value has been vocal ever since "Okie From Muskogee" saddled him with an image, and here his resonant, reflective baritone transforms three Ernest Tubb tunes from standards into timeless pieces of Americana. If Willie Nelson is Bing Crosby, Haggard's Sinatra. B+

Big City [Epic, 1981]
Having charged CBS considerable to slide into that notch on Billy Sherrill's gun, Merle signifies his seriousness by saving the flaky stuff for next year and clearing his throat before he sings. This isn't just for his cult--it's for the whole damn country audience. "My Favorite Memory" and "I Always Get Lucky With You" are love songs that may cloy eventually but at least stick for now. "Big City" and "Are the Good Times Really Over" are by the Merle who wrote that song about hippies. And just like on a real Nashville album, you can only tell how much filler there is by listening till you're sick of it. B

Going Where the Lonely Go [Epic, 1982]
Country legend or no, Haggard has no more business doing an album about broken relationships than Public Image Ltd. As a result, material that might be touching from a more austere singer is barely credible, and the three songs that open side two--one by Merle and Jimmy Dickens, one by Merle's off-and-on wife Leona Williams, and one by the austere Willie Nelson--ooze with the kind of moist self-pity ordinarily encountered only in leaders of the men's liberation movement. C+

His Epic Hits--The First Eleven--To Be Continued . . . [Epic, 1984]
Though at first this just seems sad, an objective person will admit that actually the songs are kind of memorable--in other words, not filler. He wrote most of them himself, too. But an objective person will also note that the two side-openers (and the two best tracks by a mile) both feature Willie Nelson. And wish he hadn't ruined a great stanza in "My Favorite Memory" with that stupid line about how she made their vacation a ball. And get kind of sick at the reactionary nostalgia of "Are the Good Times Really Over." And wonder whether Mrs. Hag really ended up in George Jones's bed like he claims in "C.C. Waterback," and whether Hag minded, and if not why not. And get sad all over again. B-

His Best [MCA, 1985]
Though occasional jingoisms like last year's Amber Waves of Grain encourage citified ignoramuses to believe he can't see beyond Muskogee, over the years his musical sophistication has surpassed even Willie Nelson's. His Strangers are a stripped-down version of Bob Wills's Playboys, his soft timbre and lazy swing marks of a singer who'll never get old, and unlike Nelson he keeps writing. This compilation is overdue--he deserted the label in '81--and not all it should be. It draws too heavily on the all too conceptual 1980 Back to the Barrooms. Its two best songs may steer you away from the minor pleasures of the all-encompassingly unconceptual The Way I Am. And it's recommended to ignoramuses nevertheless. B+

Songwriter [MCA, 1985]
The best cuts here would make His Best better. But the real reason Haggard has never chalked up the great compilations a great country artist has in him is the reason MCA is perfectly justified in repackaging duff stuff like "Red Bandana" and "From Graceland to the Promised Land." On the country charts, those were hits--that's the way the country audience can be with great country artists. Best cut: the dangerously self-referential "Footlights," which was never released as a single. B

A Friend in California [Epic, 1985]
Just when I decide he's gonna lay back forever he ambles into this. No Nippophobia, minimal love pap, a touch of Mexico, and lots of swing--except for one Freddy Powers pledge it keeps going till the obligatory sentimentality of the last two cuts. But though Merle's writing is rolling the prize is Floyd Tillman's "This Cold War With You." I vote for a tribute follow-up. B+

Chill Factor [Epic, 1987]
Supposedly a good one, and since it features an illustrated inner sleeve and six songs on one side that must be the intent. But by peaking with "Thirty Again," all it proves is that his great theme is age rather than love, which of course dominates. Further proof includes the overtaxed title metaphor and a Hank Cochran copyright so bitter and direct it makes you think his women get sick of him for the simple reason that's he full of shit. B-

5:01 Blues [Epic, 1989]
It wouldn't be strictly accurate to claim Haggard has pissed his talent away, but the temptation to say so anyhow beckons. His laid-back vocal signature is the lazy man's friend. His originals suggest that he has no reject pile--just entunes any old piece of verse for the annual session. And again and again his famous ecumenicism camouflages lame genre excursions--on this album, the Bellamy-reggae "Sea of Heartbreak." A slight improvement over 1988's feckless Out Among the Stars, due mostly to a formulaic title tune Hag didn't write. But if he thinks he isn't getting away with shit, he needs a shrink. C+

Capitol Collectors' Series [Capitol, 1990]
"His Capitol years resulted in 38 Top Ten smashes, many more than can be adequately covered in just this one volume of his hits." But at least this one includes the studio version of "Okie from Muskogee," its first appearance on any Hag album. Although newcomers should note that the man doesn't understand country's essential theme, monogamy, he does know work, prison, family, hard times, my country right or center--which doesn't stop him from getting mawkish about them. And gutless he's not. Six of the seven '74-'76 selections went number one country, while the other barely creased the aforementioned top 10--the one that speaks kindly of Dr. King. A-

More of the Best [Rhino, 1990]
The remaining 18 hits, I presume, including the definitive sinner's lament "Mama Tried." Capitol has dibs on the classics, including flag-wavers rock and rollers think they can live without, so Rhino's is short on working-man songs. But it also avoids unnecessarily educational jingoist jingles. Instead we get an asshole's view of marriage, as instructive as it is irritating. He screws in the afternoon, he takes his wife to Florida for a weekend of woo he's sure will patch things up, he settles for a substitute: "I don't have to wonder who she's had/No, it's not love, but it's not bad." You wonder exactly which working men these songs are for--makes you realize how many high-rolling automobile dealers he plays to. But self-pity has rarely possessed a more observant spokesperson. And "Rainbow Stew" says bye with an antiutopian whimsy lefties can relate to. A-

If I Could Only Fly [Epitaph, 2000]
For decades aesthetes have crowed about the hard-traveling Haggard's all-American musicality without mentioning that he's a cranky bastard who never decides till the moment at hand whether this gig or session is worthy of his high standards. After a long, dispiriting string of releases that gradually devolved from hit-or-miss to cynical, he comes out of nowhere on a punk label to cut one of the very best albums of his very uneven recording career. Although I doubt there's a "Mama Tried" or "Today I Started Loving You Again" here, I'm positive there's no "Valentine" or "Kids Get Lonesome Too," both of which turned my stomach at a 1996 show, and I like or love most of the new songs-including the metanostalgic "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," the Western swing condom commercial "Bareback," and several about how much he loves his fifth wife. Plus sui generis singing that pauses for consecutive Bing Crosby and Johnny Cash tributes, and the sense of time that permeates his equally sui generis Bakersfield swing. What is his deepest belief? That time is to be savored, not possessed. A-

Roots Volume 1 [Anti-, 2001]
who wrote his country soul was Lefty, not Hank--as if we didn't know ("Always Late [With Your Kisses]," "If You've Got the Money [I've Got the Time]") **

Like Never Before [Hag, 2003]
Rebel, patriot, musician, legend, populist, sentimentalist, small businessman ("That's the News," "Lonesome Day"). **

Unforgettable [Capitol, 2004]
"Goin' Away Party" Choice Cuts

The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years [Epic/Legacy, 2004]
In which hackdom ages like a fine muscatel. Back when Hag was still flexing his muscles commercially and culturally, the sentimentality of his Billy Sherrill period was rank. Now it's just gorgeously phrased. Sit back and enjoy it. No harm done. [Recyclables]

Chicago Wind [Capitol, 2005]
Leave Iraq and stay with your love ("Where's All the Freedom," "It Always Will Be"). ***

I Am What I Am [Vanguard, 2010]
Although Haggard recorded many more good albums in the '00s than in the '90s, his songwriting hasn't been this sharp since 2000's If I Could Only Fly. Not that every song flies, and not that he creaks so noticeably on the December-December "We're Falling in Love Again" just to make sure he conveys how "making love 'neath the stars" actually feels at 73. But his good-old-days laments taste sweet where once they curdled. You'd almost think he's grateful to be alive, which may just be why Johnny Cash's ghost gets to croak "I watched it all completely fall apart" on the lead track. B+

Working in Tennessee [Vanguard, 2011]
Now 74 and short half a lung, he's not making the best music of his life, just the best albums. The playing keeps getting savvier, he hasn't lost as much voice as God intended, his homegrown anarchism is feistier than ever, and with help from his fifth wife he's still writing keepers. Not even the anti-Nashville "Too Much Boogie Woogie" feels like filler. Try a title track that crests with "Well the water came in, the water went out/Saw the Hall of Fame floatin' about," or the equally insouciant "Laugh It Off," or the love songs for seniors "Down on the Houseboat" (they've got money) and "Under the Bridge" (they don't), or a "What I Hate" where he blames the resurgent Civil War on the Rebels. Or if all that sounds too darn modern, start with the three oldies: "Cocaine Blues" on his lonesome, "Jackson" with his fifth wife, and "Working Man Blues" with Shotgun Willie and his own 17-year-old son. Man's learned how to live, and he has no intention of stopping. A-

See Also