If I Could Only Fly
LIKE SO MANY living legends, Merle Haggard has pressed such a crateload of dreck in his lifetime that any historically conscious young person who sifts through the used LP racks in search of Hag's purported genius is more likely to snag a stinker--and by odds of something like 10-to-1 at that. By 1974 it was already time for Merle Haggard Presents His 30th Album, and Merle's last undeniably great record, A Working Man Can't Get Nowhere, was compiled from work tapes by Capitol after Haggard jumped ship for MCA way back in 1977. By 1980 he had sunk to Elvis-style novelties like "Sky-Bo." ("That's a new kind of hobo for planes.")
So, at best, Haggard's link with the punks over at Epitaph would seem likely to drive the old guy to overstate his "outlaw" pedigree. Instead, from the opening track, "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," the 63-year-old Haggard obsesses purposefully on age. The chilly opening vignette, which leads with Haggard "watching while some old friends do a line" and aching to snort along, is a more terrifying and more honest lick of an addict's lips than Steve Earle's equally lived-in drug tales.
But you don't listen to Merle Haggard records for lyrical insight--though it comes: Is "There ain't no ridin' bareback anymore/Ain't no takin' chances like before" a safe-sex anthem? And you don't hang in there for musical accomplishment, though his band knows just when to add a steel lick or harp shading, and the Western-swing numbers cavort with a giddily unforced intensity. You listen to hear the third member of the grand troika of modern country's men's voices flex his larynx. If Willie Nelson is the grand master of nuanced interpretive phrasing, and George Jones an inexorable force of nature who squeezes soul from banality, Haggard is the supreme naturalist, transforming commonplace into common sense, cliché into emotional destiny. When, on "Turn to Me," he pauses so cannily after "When questions go," you wonder what word will come next, even though you know it's got to be "unanswered." No American singer has so great a gift for postponing the inevitable as a way of renewing our interest in the mundane.