If I Could Only Fly, Merle Haggard's first album for the indie label Anti, was deservedly hailed as his finest record in decades, as audiences and critics recognized a revitalized Hag. It wasn't just that his songwriting was stronger than it had been, but it was also the unhurried grace of the performances that recalled his peaks with the Strangers in the '60s and '70s. If I Could Only Fly set the bar so high that it would have been easy to assume that Haggard couldn't match it with his next album for Anti but, remarkably, Roots, Vol. 1 surpasses its predecessor, ranking among the very best albums of his long, storied career. The title implies that the record is a return to the beginnings for Haggard, and that's true to a certain extent, but Roots, Vol. 1 is hardly a studied, self-conscious tribute. Instead, it's an unexpected return to how country records used to be made, inspired largely by Haggard's teaming with Norman Stephens, Lefty Frizzell's longtime guitarist. Stephens and Hag started playing and not long afterward, they decided to make a record, comprised largely of Lefty songs, but also some Hank Thompson and Hank Williams, along with three tunes from Haggard. There are no surprises here -- if you know country music, you know these songs -- but that's the beauty of the record; since you know these songs so well, it's possible to hear the joy, the elegance, and the brilliance of the performances. And, make no mistake about it, this is a brilliant record, the equal of his legendary Bob Wills tribute, but where that had the spirit of a punk record -- Merle learned how to play fiddle weeks before recording -- this is the sound of a veteran relaxing, playing the music he loves, but personalizing it through his years of experience, both personal and professional. So, it's an album filled with small gems, but they add up to a large triumph -- a rich, masterful album that's not just the best country album of 2001, but one of Haggard's finest moments.
Roots, Vol. 1 Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine