Merle Haggard

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1996 Review

by Michael McCall

In late 1995, Merle Haggard stood on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry House, acknowledging the music industry's ovation as he accepted his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A few months later, however, his next album came out with no fanfare at all. His record company didn't send promotional copies to reviewers until the album had been out for nearly a month, and no advertising or promotion has been devoted to the music. The album artwork and cover reflect this lack of care: the title, 1996, is boxed on the cover like a tomb, exactly like Hag's last set, 1994. What's inside deserves more attention. Recorded in Bakersfield, Haggard's album takes a jaunty yet melancholy look at a middle-aged man's concerns. Not everything works; "Kids Get Lonesome Too" has a grandfatherly sentimentality, but it's not very substantial. The rest carries plenty of meat: "Sin City Blues" bemoans the temptations of New Orleans with Dixieland verve; "Beer Can Hill" is a humorous reminiscence about honky tonkin' in Bakersfiel; and "Untanglin' My Mind" (a hit for co-writer Clint Black) is a textbook example of the difference between the stiff perfection of Nashville over-production and the loose, life-affirming musicianship that Haggard prefers. The album's standout is a cover of Iris Dement's great "No Time to Cry," which Haggard fills with aged, tired wisdom.

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