There are a lot of country-music geezers, alive and dead, who have carved their craggy likenesses onto hillbilly history in various ways, as men of the soil, men sporting braids or pompadours, in Nudie suits or cowboy hats. A vast 75-year parade of city slickers and kids from the sticks, all of them valid. One chunk of that truck-stop pie is the contribution made by the Bakersfield Boys, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens primarily, and when you think of Bakersfield it's hard not to think of dusty plains, hobos hopping freights, hot coffee and semi-trucks full of produce screaming by through the night toward dawn. Whatever it is, it's not Nashville.
The idea of Merle Haggard drifts into the mind's eye like a distant silhouette; modest, shy, wily Tom Joad at the crossroads meeting Jimmie Rodgers, something like the ghosts of all the souls of all the characters that Robert Duvall has ever played. Haggard in retrospect seems like he was born mythical -- a figure whose official Web site (merlehaggard.com) offers shoppers copies of a poster featuring Hag with his Telecaster sitting next to Smokey the Bear. And in that same merchandising catalogue there's a gospel recording that shows Merle enjoying a private audience with Jesus. Haggard might take a back seat to Jesus, by and by, Lord, but looking at the two of them there on the disc it's hard not to wonder which twin has the Toni.
But Jesus Christ or Smokey the Bear, an old red barn, a crumpled pack of Chesterfields or a freight train, the ever-stoic Merle need hardly strum a chord or choke on a phrase to single-handedly represent the best there is, was, and ever will be in American music. And while one might wonder why Haggard doesn't just take his place in Valhalla or on Mount Rushmore, it's good that he hasn't because he still has things to say and sing about.
For example, on "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," the opening cut off his new disc If I Could Only Fly, Haggard lets us know that it isn't so much giving up his wilding ways that bothers him, it's the sameness, the tiredness, of the old pursuits that brings him down: "Watching while some old friends do a line/Holding back the want-to in my old addicted mind/Wishin' it was still the same thing I could do/Wishin' all these old things were new."
But just when you feel Haggard's bursitis taking hold, off he goes again, a happy puppy in barroom sawdust, wailing about his "Honky Tonk Mama" so loudly the cops throw him in the hoosegow.
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Haggard has signed to Anti-, a division of Epitaph, one of the most successful punk/thrash labels ever, home of Offspring, Agnostic Front and others. While it would be fun to find some kind of irony there, it should be enough simply to note that Haggard now shares a label with Midget Handjob.
Beyond that, If I Could Only Fly is dignified and simple, like Haggard himself. There's some fun with Latin rhythms ("Crazy Moon"), poignancy in the story of an ex-con and his son ("I'm Still Your Daddy") and a bit of autobiography ("Thanks to Uncle John"). Haggard shows us as much heart as we can stand to see in tunes like the title track, "Proud to Be Your Old Man" and a tour song, "Leavin's Getting Harder." Haggard may look for all the world like a dust devil in single-frame freeze, but his voice and songwriting are sweet and smooth, each song wrapped like a baby in a blanket in no small part because of the snappy melodic guitar work by the wonderful Redd Volkaert and the rest of Hag's pals.
In speaking of Haggard, one writer actually went so far as to say, "What Grey Poupon has meant to Mustard, Merle has meant to Country Music." There's an image that's hard to let go of. But what do you give a man who has been the target of every hyperbolic accolade in music crit history? More of the same, I suppose.
So here goes: You probably won't hear him on country radio, but he's great, and if he isn't the greatest, he's in the top 10. Buy the disc and argue amongst yourselves.