Various Artists

Tulare Dust: A Songwriters' Tribute to Merle Haggard

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If you've been paying any attention at all, you know Merle Haggard ranks among the best singers country music has ever produced. What you might not realize is that he's also one of the genre's finest songwriters. For evidence, just listen to this tribute album, which finds a motley crew of roots artists performing 15 of their favorite Haggard tunes. Despite the absence of many of his best-known songs, the package leaves little doubt that, as the liner notes put it, "Haggard may be the last of a breed of great country songwriters that began with Jimmie Rodgers, and continued through Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell." Every composition radiates with Haggard's honesty, eye for detail, and strong point of view, and every track has the feel of a classic. The vast majority of the performances are as impressive as the songs. Tom Russell, who co-produced with Dave Alvin, delivers the package's most Haggard-like vocal on a beautifully handled medley of dust-bowl stories, "Tulare Dust/They're Tearin' the Labor Camps Down," while Alvin turns in a haunting "Kern River." Among the many other highlights: Iris DeMent's "Big City," which Haggard reportedly loved; Rosie Flores' interpretation of "My Own Kind of Hat," one of Haggard's many declarations of independence; Barrence Whitfield's version of "Irma Jackson," which addresses race relations via the tale of an interracial romance; Steve Young's affecting "Shopping for Dresses"; and the melancholy "I Can't Be Myself," where Katy Moffatt hits thrilling high notes. Nobody sings Haggard quite like Haggard, but these recordings are classics in their own right.

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