Since there have been so many Merle Haggard compilations released over the years, it's easy to assume that his stint at Epic Records in the '80s is well documented, but that's not necessarily the case. First of all, many of the proper studio albums are either long out of print or have never made it to CD, so it's hard to hear the entirety of his catalog, and secondly, there just haven't been that many hits collections, and those aren't entirely satisfying either. Apart from 1984's His Epic Hits: First Eleven to Be Continued, released partway through his time at the label, there has been only one other U.S.-released compilation, 1990's Greatest Hits of the 80's, which covered the same territory, but not any better. So, it's been a full 20 years since there's been a good collection of Merle's Epic recordings released in America. In the meantime, Edsel released the excellent collection Yesterday's Wine 1981-1988 in 1998, which ran a generous 24 tracks and contained the bulk of his best work for the label. Given the length of that collection, it's not surprising that Epic/Legacy's 2004 The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years, the first domestic comp in 14 years, has a lot of overlap with it -- in fact, 11 of the 14 songs on this compilation are also on Yesterday's Wine (the ones exclusive to Essential are "I Always Get Lucky With You," "I Had a Beautiful Time," and "The Okie from Muskogee's Comin' Home"). So, if you already own that, this isn't necessary, but Yesterday's Wine is difficult to find, going out of print just a few years after its release, so this becomes the best overview of Hag's Epic years on the market. At only 14 tracks, it's not as exhaustive as the Edsel disc, but this contains all the big songs -- "Big City," "Are the Good Times Really Over (I Wish a Buck Was Still Silver)," "Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room," "That's the Way Love Goes," "Pancho and Lefty," and "Going Where the Lonely Go" -- and is a highly entertaining listen, making it an excellent overview and introduction to an underrated phase of Haggard's rich career.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
feat: George Jones
feat: Willie Nelson