Leona Williams was married to Merle Haggard between 1978 and 1984 and wrote and recorded a number of songs with him as well as touring with his band as a backing vocalist (replacing Bonnie Owens in the group). So it certainly makes sense that Williams would record an album of songs from Haggard's songbook, and if anything it's a surprise that it took her until 2008 to record Sings Merle Haggard. Williams has a fine, strong voice with a dash of country twang that cuts through the sweetness, though her instrument often sounds a bit too refined for the flinty real-life stories of Haggard's songs. And while the pickers on this session (including the legendary piano man Hargus "Pig" Robbins) do fine work, the results sound slicker and less incisive than the low-key Bakersfield sound of Haggard's classic recordings. And while it's possible to read "Okie from Muskogee" as satire all these years later, the jingoism of "The Fightin' Side of Me" feels a bit out of place in the 21st century, and Williams would have done well to have picked two other songs from Hag's catalog. But there's little arguing that Merle Haggard is one of the finest songwriters to emerge in country music in the 1960s, and the songs Williams chose for this disc (most, but not all, written by Haggard) testify to the emotional honesty and plain-spoken poetry of his best work; Williams clearly understands what makes this material special and puts just the right spin on these tunes. (And in 2008, "If We Make It Through December" may be even more apt than when Haggard first cut it in 1974.) Leona Williams Sings Merle Haggard won't replace any decent Haggard album in anyone's hearts, but it's an honest and sincere tribute to a major artist from someone who knows the man and his music quite well, and that knowledge shows in the final product.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming