Merle Haggard

Kern River/Chill Factor

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American Beat’s 2010 two-fer combines two of Merle Haggard’s most distinctive albums from the mid-‘80s -- 1985’s Kern River and 1987’s Chill Factor -- onto one CD. Arriving in 1985, Kern River is a curious mix of Haggard’s dry, spare narratives and nostalgic, big-band throwbacks, a combination that might initially seem to clash, but Hag handles it with an understated ease. If anything, the melancholic undercurrent of “Kern River” -- one of Merle’s best latter-day songs -- is a bit deceptive, as the rest of the record never quite manages to convey the same dusty sadness, preferring the sentimental to the stark. Haggard’s easy grace adds resonance to these ballads, whether it’s some finely crafted originals or a smooth version of “There I’ve Said It Again,” and Hag picks up the tempo nicely on “I Wonder Where I’ll Find You Tonight,” the swinging “Old Watermill,” and a joyful reading of Louis Armstrong’s “Big Butter and Egg Man.” This is a pretty good indication of how Kern River winds up as a subtly eclectic outing for Haggard, an album where the jazz doesn’t feel like a detour or flair, but like an extension of his worldview -- and if this isn’t his best record of the ‘80s, it’s possibly the best example of Haggard’s far-reaching, varied tastes as he settled into his veteran status. Compared to Kern River, Chill Factor is streamlined, constructed primarily out of originals and given a clean, gleaming production designed with the radio in mind. In the case of the sweetly swinging “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Star,” it took him all the way to the top of the charts -- the last time he’d achieve such a peak in his long career -- and it’s a deserving final number one hit, bearing enough of a trace of Western swing to be of a piece with his classic hits yet given an unmistakably modern spin. All of Chill Factor has this serene, clean production -- even when the tempo starts to kick upward, things stay reserved (in the case of “You Babe,” it threatens to mummify the performance but this is a one-time stumble) -- and while this sound dates the album somewhat, it’s also easy to hear beyond it, to recognize that this is one of Haggard’s strongest collection of songs of the ‘80s, a record where he remains a peerless craftsman and has yet to succumb completely to the streak of bitter nostalgia that sometimes tainted his records of the ‘90s. Here, he’s clear-eyed and perceptive, sometimes pining for the past, but decidedly alive in the present.

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