Merle Haggard

Unforgettable

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As the '90s drew to a close, Merle Haggard left major labels behind, putting out a pair of excellent records on the punk label Epitaph before parting ways with them and releasing a politically charged album on an even smaller indie called Compendium, before quietly returning to his longtime home, Capitol, in 2004 with Unforgettable. This album is part of a long line of veteran singers tackling the American popular songbook -- i.e., pre-rock & roll vocal pop standards such as "As Time Goes By," "Stardust," and "I Can't Get Started." This may be a common move, but coming from the contrarian Haggard, it seems as idiosyncratic and comfortable as his collection of classic country covers, Roots, Vol. 1. Like that album, this is warm, relaxed and laid-back, impeccably performed, and pleasurable to hear. Not that it contains any surprises -- it's filled with low-key, piano-driven arrangements suited for a late-night smoky bar or any other of the many similarly styled standards records -- but what makes Unforgettable work is Haggard's easy, assured delivery. He may not reinvent these songs, but he sings them as if they were his own, making this a small, romantic gem for listeners who love Hag the singer as much as they love Hag the writer.

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