Merle Haggard

Live at Billy Bob's Texas: Ol' Country Singer

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The true reigning king of country singers and songwriters is Merle Haggard. That's right, not George Jones, but Merle Haggard. Hag takes lots of chances not only in his songs and arrangements but with his voice. He throws it around, reaching both high and low, slurring and whining and moaning to get his -- and others' -- tunes across in as heartfelt and authentic a manner as is possible on a given night. That is evidenced by his second live offering from Billy Bob's Texas, Ol' Country Singer. Haggard and the Strangers roar through a set that is full of surprises as well as nuggets. Kicking off with a medley of "Runnin' Kind" and "Lonesome Fugitive," he and the band jump right into Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," followed by "Texas Women" with a full-on jazzed-up Western swing arrangement. As is his trademark, Haggard surrounds himself with bandmembers who are superchoppers -- not in the Nash Vegas sense where any arrangement is played with requisite perfection, but instead with a band that can change modes, styles, and moods quickly and seamlessly in order to find the balance Merle seeks to get over to the crowd. Norm Hamlet is here, as are Don Markham and Scott Joss. Guitarist Norm Stephens has replaced Redd Volkaert masterfully. Criminally forgotten country great Janie Fricke guests on the devastatingly beautiful "A Place to Fall Apart" and the moving country-soul of "Natural High." Hag pulls out the patriotic odes as well in "Rainbow Stew" and "Fightin' Side of Me," and the conviction in his voice is not conservative or liberal but that of an American poet speaking his mind. Hag duets with rhythm guitarist Freddy Powers on the title track -- there is a studio version tagged on to the end of the album as well. Near the end Hag pulls out two surprises: one is a moving version of "Kern River" and the other, "Footlights," is one of his most poignant tomes, here rendered with reverie and the awareness of age and mortality's creep. The loneliness of Haggard's life is balanced with the blessings. This is easily the most intimate moment here. For the hardcore to be sure, but Ol' Country Singer is a welcome and worthy addition to the Merle shelf.

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