NASHVILLE SKYLINE: When He Paints His Masterpiece

Merle Haggard's Unforgettable Presages His Return to Capitol Form

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

One of the greatest country music performances I have ever witnessed was just a few years ago under a tent on Music Square East (easier to find as 16th Avenue South) in Nashville during CMA Awards week. The white tent — open on all sides — was just down the street from Curb Records, which was then home to Merle Haggard. That fact was not widely known, and Haggard later joked, “People thought I was missing for 10 years. I was on Curb Records for 10 years.”

But that night, Merle Haggard and the Strangers delivered a show that was alternately blistering and tender, touching and blasting. Brooks & Dunn had hired Haggard to play the show, just for their own pleasure and that of a few invited friends. And it was, by God, a great pleasure. He ranged through his huge treasure chest of songs, running through every Haggard treasure every Haggard fan ever wanted to hear. And Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn were right there in the front row, cheering and clapping as the Hag’s No. 1 fans.

Haggard started on Capitol Records back in 1965, left the label in 1977 and is back now on Capitol Nashville records after a long spell of uneven albums elsewhere. His first Capitol release is Unforgettable, a collection of mostly pop standards.

For him to tackle “Stardust” — which Willie Nelson virtually claimed as his own as the title track of his landmark 1978 album of pop classics — is audacious. But the man carries it off handsomely. Haggard is more of a big-band singer, and he envelops the song in a big context, where Nelson delivers it as a more intimate, more personal refrain. Both Nelson’s and Haggard’s versions remain lovely, lovely renditions of an eternal song. It’s the only song Haggard’s Unforgettable shares with Nelson’s Stardust, but Haggard carves out his own niche of golden countrified pop standards. There’s no one else in their league anymore, in Nelson’s and Haggard’s rarefied atmosphere of elder country superstars, who continue to defy age and stereotypes in creating new music.

Here, Haggard totally commands such finger-snapping standards as “Pennies From Heaven” and “Cry Me a River.” The old Cindy Walker-penned western swing ballad “Goin’ Away Party” gets a new life here. He adds one original song here, the pop-ish “What Love Can Do” (co-written with his wife Theresa).

Covering standards seems easy, but it’s far from that. Rod Stewart gets away with some of it, but not always so. Linda Ronstadt has a flair for it. Sometimes country music advocates forget that country music fans don’t live in a country music vacuum: that they actually listen to other forms and genres of music

I personally can’t wait to hear what Haggard will deliver as his major re-introduction on Capitol Records. That’s a proud record label and he’s a proud artist. For his next CD, he’s even lured out of retirement famed producer Jimmy Bowen, who used to run Capitol Nashville (as well as half a dozen other Nashville labels).

Merle Haggard, I think, remains the most underappreciated major country artist alive today. Much of that is due to ageism, because mainstream country radio won’t acknowledge his or his peers’ existence. That’s a fact of life. Well, to hell with mainstream radio. They have their own fish to fry — which is fine with me. I can listen to that, but I want more musical sustenance than that, and I think that’s being delivered from satellite radio. But, it’s also significant that the kind of solid mainstream country music (which so-called “mainstream country radio” can’t or won’t deliver) is once again being recorded by a major Nashville record label — Capitol Nashville. Good for them.