Merle Haggard

Like Never Before

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Much was made of Merle Haggard's "That's the News," a scathing indictment of media culture and the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq. A simple country song, it's the kind of thing Haggard had been writing throughout his entire career in his celebration of core American values. And because he's critical of the American government, listeners should not make the mistake that Haggard suddenly became a pacifist or sympathetic to the American left. "Are the Good Times Really Over for Good" trod some similar ground and argued against--what he perceived to be--a welfare state and has made repated public statements about closing our borders. Also, given the rest of the album, another brick in the foundation of Haggard's artistic and popular renaissance, it should not overshadow the rest of these songs. They are all solid, even brilliant efforts by Haggard and are rooted deeply in Bakersfield honky tonk ("Haggard (Like I've Never Been Before)", Western swing ("Garbage Man" and "Lonesome Day"), the bluesy roots of "Reno Blues," a duet with Willie Nelson, the innovative, jazzy balladry of "Because of Your Eyes" (with gorgeous guitar playing from Hag), and "I Hate to See It Go." This is mostly a laid-back affair for Haggard, but it is meticulously crafted and arranged, full of beautiful charts and striking vocal and instrumental performances. The album's final track, "Return to San Francisco," is a country song meeting the jazzier side of Bob Wills' ghost with a mariachi horn section in the bridge for good measure. Haggard hears many different kinds of music in his head; thankfully, for everyone else, he effortlessly gets it down on tape time and time again.

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