Merle Haggard

Out Among the Stars

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On his '90s comeback album, If I Could Only Fly, this country legend makes a reference to the "roaring '80s." Listeners familiar with the Merle Haggard output during that decade, however, will know that for Hag it was more like the snoring '80s, at least musically. This is a typical album from this period, and although a low point on a Haggard album might be better than entire records by some country artists, there is still plenty of room for criticism. What he does emotionally with his lyrics is so ripe with sentimentality that with the wrong kind of production it can quickly evolve into just plain rotten. The liquor store robbery that forms the narrative line for the opening track, "Out Among the Stars," might be perfect fodder for a Haggard album of another time and another place, and in fact he makes reference to this type of lawless violence in the lyrics to the much later "Wishing All These Old Things Were New," one of the finest songs he has ever written. But here the result is just overblown, a potboiler on the level of the worst Bruce Springsteen material. Haggard looks exhausted on the cover -- it looks like an airbrush was used to remove lines from his face -- and perhaps the picture is a reaction shot to the playing of the session guys here. The swinging "Pennies From Heaven," the kind of material Haggard does really well, is a welcome relief from the dirge of over-processed country music, '80s style, but even on this song we have a drummer with feet of lead. The turgid "My Life's Been Grand" is pretty good proof that country music is better when the artist is complaining about things and not indulging in a pastime best described by the Yiddish word "kvelling."

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