Merle Haggard has been affiliated with several different major and independent labels in a recording career dating back to 1963, and his catalog resides in the archives of such competing companies as EMI, Universal, and Sony BMG. His longest and most successful stint was on EMI's Capitol subsidiary, 1966-1977, so if any one firm were to attempt a multi-label compilation, Capitol would seem the most likely candidate. Instead, this single-disc best-of comes from Hip-O, the reissue division of Universal, which owns only the recordings Haggard made for MCA Records from 1977 to 1981. Hip-O is known for its willingness to license tracks from others, and it has outdone itself on this edition of the Definitive Collection series; only nine of the 22 tracks come from inside the company (which is something of an over-representation as it is), with six from Capitol, five from Sony BMG's Epic label (where Haggard recorded from 1981 to 1989), and two from the independent ANTI Records label (for which he made two albums in 2000-2001). Having addressed the problem of Haggard's catalog diffusion, however, compilation producer Andy McKaie still faced the impossibility of encompassing that enormous body of work on a single 71-minute CD. There is no way to do anything more than sample the bounty, which is what McKaie does. Haggard's first number one country hit, "The Fugitive," leads things off, beginning a run of six number ones (the Capitol tracks) that include such signature songs as "Mama Tried," "Okie from Muskogee," and "If We Make It Through December" (but not "The Bottle Let Me Down," "Branded Man," or "The Fightin' Side of Me"). The MCA tracks are Haggard's biggest hits for the label, only one of them, "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," was a chart topper, but there's a live version of one of the missing Capitol hits, "Sing Me Back Home." Many of Haggard's biggest hits on Epic were duets, which is recognized by the inclusion of "Yesterday's Wine," sung with George Jones, and "Pancho and Lefty," on which Haggard is really just a guest of Willie Nelson, who sings the lion's share of the song. The Epic period concludes with Haggard's final country number one, "Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star," and the disc ends with the ANTI tracks, remakes of songs by Red Foley and Lefty Frizzell. The selection is a reasonable attempt to span a river that's really just too wide to cross in one jump. The album might have been closer to "definitive" with more of the Capitol hits and fewer from MCA, but it does present some of the better performances from the breadth of Haggard's career.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
feat: George Jones
feat: Willie Nelson