The rock crit party line on the new Merle Haggard CD goes something like this: As with Johnny Cash when he cut American Recordings with Rick Rubin, Haggard now also signs with a streetwise rock label, and makes a breakthrough album that gains him heroic stature with the trendies. But don't believe the hype.
What the trendies fail to realize is that Haggard and Cash have been making hip albums all along. That duly noted, If I Could Only Fly is better seen as one of any number of excellent Hag discs. It just happens to be this year's model from an artist for whom both constant change and permanent adherence to certain musical truths are benchmarks of his approach. Releasing it through the L.A.-based punk label Epitaph does allow Haggard to make the sort of record that today's Nashville wouldn't be interested in. And thanks to that, If I Could Only Fly is, as Haggard albums go, as real as the lines on the Hag's weathered face.
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As the title track by late local hero Blaze Foley indicates, this is an album suffused with longing, some of it rather candidly expressed, though all utterly natural for a 63-year-old former delinquent-turned-working-class icon. In "Wishing All Those Old Things Were Now," he confesses to wanting a snort, staring down that jones, and winning. "Leavin's Getting Harder" finds this confirmed road dog touting the pleasures of home, love and repose. The Strangers complement Haggard's mature lyrical sentiments with brilliantly comfortable backing (Austin pianist Floyd Domino, an honorary Stranger, plays some piquant solos). And this collection delves into such major Haggard influences as Dixieland, Western swing, classic pop and the blues, all of it given the indelible Hag trademark as he uses his musical vocabulary to tell new stories all his own. There's not an instant standard here like "Sing Me Back Home" or "Big City," but the Hag is still writing like a master. Hence this does make a good primer for profiling the Haggard oeuvre, as long as one remembers it's a short if significant chapter in one of the greatest country music stories a singer has ever lived and written.