Arriving after the superb Bob Wills salute Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, 1971's Hag was Merle Haggard's first collection of largely original songs in two years, since 1969's Portrait. Since that album, Haggard experienced great success with "Okie from Muskogee," which launched two quick live albums (one bearing the name of the song, the other being The Fightin' Side of Me), plus an instrumental album by the Strangers, before the labor of love of the Wills album. Perhaps Haggard had a great stock of songs saved up during those two years, because Hag is one of his absolute best albums -- which means a lot, because he recorded no shortage of great records. In contrast to the rowdy live albums and the raucous Western swing that preceded it, Hag is quite quiet and reflective, sometimes referencing the turmoil within America at the end of the '60s, but more often finding Haggard turning inward. This album turned out no less than four hits, with three of them addressing larger issues: the revival of Ernest Tubb's WWII hit "Soldier's Last Letter" is now cast in the shadow of Vietnam, Haggard's original "Jesus, Take a Hold" ponders the state of the world, while Dave Kirby's "Sidewalks of Chicago" is about homelessness. The other hit was "I Can't Be Myself," a haunting admission that the singer "can't be myself when I'm with you," and it's only one of many great originals on Hag. The tempo picks up twice, each time at the end of the side, when he kicks out the self-deprecating "I'm a Good Loser" and the nostalgic rave-up "I've Done It All," but the heart of this is in the gentler material, such as the melancholic elegy of "Shelly's Winter Love," the sighing heartbreak ballad "If You've Got Time," and "The Farmer's Daughter," an affecting tale of a father giving away his daughter in marriage. Each is an expertly observed, richly textured gem, and taken together they add up to one of Haggard's best albums, and one of his most moving.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine