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The House That Merle Built

 

Merle Haggard: Roots, Volume 1

Anti-, 2001

Rating: 4.0

 

 

Posted: November 30, 2001

By Laurence Station

The liner notes of Merle Haggard's new release proudly list the production credit "Recorded at Merle Haggard's Living Room (no overdubs)". In a digital age, where slick studio wizardry is the norm, such a claim stands out like a defiant statement of purpose, an invitation to a time when roots music was born on back porches, or in roadside motel rooms, the promise of something raw and unfettered.

Traditional country performers/songwriters Lefty Frizzell, Hank Thompson, and the immortal Hank Williams, Sr., are all represented here, with Lefty garnering the lion's share of the credits, thanks primarily to the participation of longtime Frizzell guitarist Norm Stephens. In Stephens, Haggard has found a veteran collaborator, a man who has spent years traversing the backroads of America, playing the crowded barrooms and larger dance halls during honky-tonk's golden age of the 1950s. Haggard’s wife, Theresa, and his backing band, the Strangers, capably round out the impressive list of players.

If this had been nothing more than a rote collection of covers (it also contains three Haggard originals), Roots, Volume 1, would have been a satisfactory, but by no means essential, addition to the honky-tonk canon. What elevates the record above the norm is the feeling with which these classic songs are interpreted. Haggard perfectly captures an aggrieved sense of resignation on "Always Late With Your Kisses", nicely complimented by the craftsmanship of Stephens' guitar picking. "More Than My Old Guitar", a Haggard original, and Frizzell's "If You've Got the Money", exhibit precise, expertly managed guitar work that enhances Merle's world-weary vocals, a plaintive, nasally near-yodel that earnestly brings the compositions to life.

The main flaw with the collection is its length -- or lack thereof. Clocking in at just over thirty minutes, the twelve cuts pass far too quickly. Given the presumptuous Volume 1 appended to the title, one wonders if there was enough material for a second collection, and, if so, why it wasn’t included, when one CD could have easily accommodated double the amount offered here.

In the final assessment, such concerns are trivial, however, when compared to the wonderful sounds of old style country captured so naturally here. In that regard, Haggard has delivered a true gem, certainly one of the year's finest releases.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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