If there was a country music Mount Rushmore two legendary (and appropriately weathered) mugs sure to be immortalized in granite would be Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard.
Willie and The Haggard have left their indelible imprint on Country music by spearheading two spirited responses to the slick sound of 50s and 60s Nashville, Outlaw country and the Bakersfield sound respectively. Willie (77) and the Hag (73) show no signs of slowing down with ongoing touring and debuts on new labels ( and in Willie’s case a follow up) and both are back to buck mainstream Country trends by assuredly reasserting their mark on the future by mining tradition.
Country Music, the title of Willie’s Rounder Records debut, can be read as both a historical affirmation of the genre and a proclamation that the current pop variety overtaking the airwaves does not have a lock on the moniker Never a slave to the genre Willie infuses these 14 classic covers (and one unearthed original) with his laid-back jazzy approach to make them fresh and compelling. Lack of collaboration is not a short-coming Willie embodies. He might collaborate with even a fence post if the mood struck him. But what I consider a perfect fellow Texan T Bone Burnett (Grammy winner for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand and Academy Award winner for the Crazy Heart soundtrack ) to handle production and brought some Nashville’s best talent – Buddy Miller,Jim Lauderdale, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, banjo player Riley Baugus as well as long-time Nelson harmonica maestro Mickey Raphale – and worked with Willie to choose the material, and steps back in the production and allows Willie and the material to shine.
The highlights include a sparse and elegant version of Merle Travis’ Appalachian coal miner lament Dark as a Dungeon which takes on a topical context in light of the recent West Virginia and Russian tragedies, the traditional Gospel number Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down which suits Willie’s sinewy voice backed by a instruments that emit a fitting Southern Gothic chill. The oft-covered Satisfied Mind is a solid study on appreciating what you have and is given authority in this delivery. The swinging Pistol Packin’ Mama, which was a number one single for Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters, throws off tons of playful cowboy cool.
I wonder if Haggard asked George Jones if he could borrow the title of his 1980 album I Am What I Am? Hag’s version made up of all originals and show him as feisty, poetic and occasionally solemn as ever. Recorded with his ace band the Strangers, as well as his son Ben on guitar, at his Northern California headquarters, the Shade Tree Manor studio, and produced by Haggard and longtime collaborator Lou Bradley, this album fits nicely into Haggard’s storied catalog. The past fist-clenched defiance of Okie from Muskogee and The Fighting Side of Me has been replaced with a contemplation and mature restrain. But Haggard is still willing to say, not shout, what’s on his mind.
The bitetrsweet I’ve Seen It Go Away reminisces better times in a rear view mirror. Pretty When It’s New and The Road to My Heart shows that Willie is not the only one with a jazzy traditional pop bent. The spirit of Bob Wills inhabits the lively twin-fiddle fueled Live and Love Always, featuring a duet with his wife, Theresa, as Haggard gives arrangement instructions mid-song. Bad Actor is a great smooth country number about a man going through the motions in a dead-end relationship. Mexican Bands is a great mariachi-tinged waltz south of the border where haggard alludes to a pastime he might have picked up from Willie – “And early mañana smoke what I wanna, And listen to Mexican bands.”
Longtime fans know that both of there men are masters of the understated guitar, and throughout both releases there is testament to their subtle artistry. There are welcome reminders of the beauty and majesty possible when performers, young or old, are courageous enough to perform work from the heart.
Willie Nelson - Country Music
Merle Haggard - I Am What I Am