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.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine