It's no secret that Merle Haggard's been on a roll in the 21st century. His independently released albums on Epitaph and Compendium were all acclaimed, and with good reason: Haggard has been the most consistent songwriter and performer country music has ever produced. Check his track record. Chicago Wind marks Hag's return to the majors, for the label he left decades ago, Capitol. Produced by Jimmy Bowen and Mike Post, it features 11 new songs, all but four written by Merle. While he's not using his touring band on this one, the musicians that surround him are Nash Vegas vets, from guitarists Reggie Young and Billy Joe Walker, Jr. to Herb Pedersen and legendary bassist Leland Sklar, just to name a few. Sure, it's slicker, the budget was bigger, and its edges have been rounded, but no more than they were on his Epic records. There's soul in bushels here. And most of it's slow, deliberate and tender. There's a softness in Haggard's gruff delivery that offers the same sensitive poet who recorded songs like "Shopping for Dresses" and "Going Where The Lonely Go." There are two "political" anthems here. "Where's All the Freedom" looks to the past as a way of evaluating the future. While those on the left side of the line of democracy may not agree with all that Haggard puts across in "Where's All the Freedom" and "America First," his questions are poignant, personal and insightful. As a man he has thought deep and hard about the issues he writes about, and as a poet, he states his case without bitterness. The rancor baiting title track is a road song that offers all the sheer loneliness and depth of vision that's made Haggard a songwriter for the people. He communicates simply, succinctly and directly. "What I've Been Meaning to Say" is one of his great love songs that are full of regret, humility, longing and the willingness to admit to being wrong. His cover of Roger Miller's "Leavin's Not the Only Way to Go" is bittersweet, tender and roughly romantic. His read of Willie Nelson's "It Will Always Be" is one of the most haunting songs he's ever recorded. "Some of Us Fly," with Toby Keith, closes the record, and it's a trademark reflection of the journey of all humans through life. Scott Joss' fiddle winds through the melody, anchoring the guitar players inside the heart of the tune, and Hag spins philosophical about the eventual road we all take. Chicago Wind is not the rough and rowdy honky tonk album some fans have been hankering for, but it is a poetic, thoughtful and empathic one that once more displays why Merle Haggard is the living king of country music.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek
feat: Toby Keith