The Bluegrass Sessions

Merle Haggard

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The Bluegrass Sessions Review

by Mark Deming

Despite signing a new deal with Capitol Records in 2004, since he parted ways with Epic Records at the end of the '80s Merle Haggard seems to have been happiest when he's as far as possible from the mainstream of contemporary country music, which would make him an ideal candidate to cut a solid bluegrass album. Abandoning any pretense of tailoring his music for radio or CMT, Haggard's best albums of the new century have been his most casual, and The Bluegrass Sessions stands alongside 2001's Roots, Vol. 1 in capturing Hag in laid-back but emphatic form. The Bluegrass Sessions was recorded with a superb acoustic ensemble and some help from guest stars Alison Krauss and Marty Stuart; the bulk of the album was cut in a single day, with Haggard singing live along with the band. While Haggard never appears to be pushing himself, he sings with the quiet commitment of a man who can't help but tell the truth as he sees it, and the low-key clarity of his vocals meshes beautifully with the subtle push and pull of the arrangements. Haggard brought a few new tunes with him for this session, and "Learning to Live with Myself" and "Wouldn't That Be Something" are worthy additions to his songbook, while "Pray" is a simple but fiercely powerful statement of faith and "What Happened?" once again demonstrates how Hag can effortlessly sound right wing and left wing all at once (he hasn't gotten over 9-11 but he hates Wal-Mart, though perhaps not as much as karaoke). Haggard and company also revisit a few songs from his back catalog, and while the new versions of "Mama's Hungry Eyes," "Big City," and "Holding Things Together" can't match the originals, there's enough force in Hag's performances to prove he still knows they're great songs and can vividly communicate their virtues. While on the surface The Bluegrass Sessions sounds as casual as a warm Sunday in August, Merle Haggard's performances say more with less than nearly anyone in Nashville, and his quiet authority is a joy to hear.

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